Automated Vehicles and Manufacturer Responsibility for Accidents: A New Legal Regime for a New Era


Publish Date:
March, 2019
Publication Title:
Virginia Law Review
Journal Article Volume 105 Issue 1 Page(s) 127-171
  • Kenneth S. Abraham and Robert L. Rabin, Automated Vehicles and Manufacturer Responsibility for Accidents: A New Legal Regime for a New Era, 105 Virginia Law Review 127 (2019).


Over a century ago, the workplace injuries that accompanied the new era of increasing industrialization were placing substantial pressures on the tort system’s ability to handle the challenge of compensating the victims of these injuries. Eventually, the interests of labor and management came together, and a new administrative compensation system, imposing strict financial responsibility on employers for work-related injuries to their employees, was substituted for the complicated and inadequate tort remedy that had been in force.1 This system of workers’ compensation is still the most far-reaching tort reform ever adopted. The system both promotes safety and compensates for injuries more effectively than tort did at the time, or would do now. Workers’ compensation has its flaws, but there is no significant desire on anyone’s part to go back to tort.

We are on the verge of another new era, requiring another new legal regime. This time, it is our system of transportation that will be revolutionized. Over time, manually-driven cars are going to be replaced by automated vehicles. The new era of automated vehicles will eventually require a legal regime that properly fits the radically new world of auto accidents. The new regime should more effectively and more sensibly promote safety and provide compensation than the existing tort doctrines governing driver liability for negligence, and manufacturer liability for product defects, will be able to provide Like labor and management a century ago, auto manufacturers, consumers, and the public at-large, often currently at odds about the tort system, will need to have their interests come together if the new era of automated transportation is to be governed by an adequate legal regime.

Any new approach will have to deal with the long and uneven transition to automated technology; impose substantial but appropriate financial responsibility for accidents on the manufacturers of highly automated vehicles; and provide satisfactory compensation to the victims of auto accidents in the new era. This Article develops and details our proposal for an approach that would accomplish these goals.