The concept of transportation is one that has recently undergone a radical overhaul. Long standing notions of transportation have been comprehensively reshaped by the advent of new and disruptive enterprises such as ride-sharing services and, with driverless cars looming on the not-too-distant horizon, it certainly appears that this process of redefinition will not relent any time soon.

Once a futuristic fantasy, driverless cars now look set to become a reality with the first Australian trial of driverless cars to be undertaken this month in Adelaide. Plaudits of driverless cars claim they will bring immeasurable benefits on both individual and environmental levels. It is thought that a large scale adoption of the driverless car will reduce the need for the ownership of multiple vehicles, in turn reducing the total number of cars on the road. This is predicted to lead to significant reductions in congestion (both on the road and in terms of parked vehicles) and the minimisation of expenditure on road maintenance.

However, the largest benefit often cited in the context of driverless cars is safety. Specifically, it is theorised that driverless cars will drastically reduce the number of accidents that occur on our roads each year because self-driving cars can and will be programmed to be more courteous and defensive than regular drivers and will also utilise sensory, mapping and radar technologies to eliminate factors that are commonly attributed to traffic infringements and motor vehicle accidents, such as speeding, driver distraction and fatigue.

It remains that driverless cars do not entirely eliminate the possibility of an accident. Indeed, many manufacturers currently engaged in this arena have already experienced serious setbacks and negative publicity as a result of motor vehicle accidents that have occurred in spite of driverless technology. This raises a number of important questions: if a self-driving car causes an accident, who should be held responsible - the occupants, the manufacturer or perhaps a third party? The answer is not immediately clear and legislative or judicial assistance will undoubtedly be required in many cases to reach a consensus on that issue.

Additionally, a number of other regulatory issues will need to be resolved before driverless cars can be utilised more broadly – state, federal and international bodies will likely need to confront and devise safety standards for autonomous vehicles in order to create an environment in which the safety benefits of autonomous vehicles can be properly realised and sufficient confidence can be instilled into individuals to facilitate the seemingly inevitable transition to these vehicles.

For a more in depth discussion about issues of liability and policy, see our earlier blog.