Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Technology and Legal Liability

Last week at the Massachusetts Digital Government Summit spoke about how much technology will transform the way cities operate.  Perhaps to most exotic prediction to me was the speaker's assertion that self-drive automobiles are already feasible and nearly available.  These cars use radar, cameras, other sensors and lots of computing power to navigate and "drive" a car safely and smoothly whatever the destination.  The scenario in which this technology might first come available could be driving in traffic.  Imagine being stuck in the bumper to bumper morning commute on Rte 93 and being able to engage your "self-drive" feature and then break open whatever novel you were reading that week as the car nudged its way forward in the midst of all that traffic.

While the technology currently exists to make this scenario feasible and even affordable, the biggest obstacle is a legal one: existing laws don't permit computer driven cars and, perhaps more importantly, the law of liability has not developed sufficiently to encompass this type of usage.

Liability and insurance coverage are also big issues in another area in which technology has already disrupted establish ways of doing business.  Companies like Uber and Airbnb use technology to allow private individuals to use their own cars and their own houses to provide transportation and lodging for a fee.  This is called "the sharing economy" and it's revolutionizing the way some people live and earn livings.  But as this short article on the Esurance website makes clear, if you're regularly getting paid to drive people around in your car, you are operating a livery service and your auto insurance policy specifically excludes that from coverage.  Get in an accident and your auto insurer will decline coverage.  Recognizing this gap, companies like Uber are now providing some insurance but it's an unsettled area and might not cover the driver or vehicle (just passengers and others outside the vehicle).

These are a couple of examples of how society, aided by technology, often outpaces the legal system.  The law catches up eventually, but not before some people get hurt by rapid changes in society and business.  That's not a reason to stifle progress but it is a reminder that the world is a complicated place.

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