Fully autonomous vehicles will become available to consumers within the next five to seven years. Experts predict that these vehicles will be drastically safer than their human-driven counterparts and will save thousands of lives each year in the United States alone. However, crashes will still occur, and when they do, they will raise unique and troubling issues about liability and fault that both negligence and products liability jurisprudence are not yet wellsuited to handle.
Whether the civil justice system can adjudicate autonomous vehicle crash cases fairly and efficiently impacts (a) whether manufacturers can afford to produce these vehicles or whether the cost and magnitude of litigation surrounding them will destroy their market, (b) whether consumers will adopt this new technology, and (c) the rate at which they will be willing and able to do so. These issues, in turn, have an impact on how many lives can be saved on U.S. roads each year. It is thus imperative to design a method of compensating victims, protecting manufacturers, and giving courts time and space to develop jurisprudence applicable to this technology if we wish to reap the profound benefits that fully autonomous vehicles stand to offer.
Although filing a lawsuit in the civil justice system will always be an option for victims of autonomous vehicle crashes, a specially designed, no-fault victim compensation fund offers a sensible way to address the issues identified above and to resolve these cases in a faster and less costly manner. While the use of victim compensation funds is a fairly recent phenomenon in the United States, these funds have been used with great success in a variety of situations and could be used successfully here.
In the model proposed in this paper, an autonomous vehicle crash victim compensation fund would be administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and financed by a tax levied on the sale of all fully autonomous vehicles. Victims who wish to seek compensation from the fund would be able to do so via a simple claim form and an agreement to waive their right to sue. Manufacturers, in turn, would be required to participate in a datasharing and design improvement program as a condition of receiving protection from the fund. This program would both assist NHTSA in gathering the information it needs to regulate autonomous vehicles and reduce the likelihood that a victim compensation fund would undermine manufacturer incentives to improve the safety of their vehicles. Participation by both victims and manufacturers would be voluntary, but the benefits of entering the fund would likely induce high levels of participation from both.