Car manufacturers have been able to push away blame for fatal accidents on a myriad of driver failures, but autonomous cars may force firms or the government to prescribe more mandatory inspections.

Steven Szakaly, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) said the old rules for automotives would not work for autonomous cars. Manufacturers would have to test car systems regularly to ensure the customer there are no potential defects.

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Szakaly called the auto industry to adopt the process aviation and mining industries use, which regularly audit vehicles to avoid disasters.

“You cannot allow those systems to fail,” Szakaly said. “And if you have those systems fail, or you don’t properly maintain those systems and that leads to failure, that liability is on those manufacturers.”

Car makers won’t want software-induced liability

Not many manufacturers have come out and supported the move to put the blame on them if their system fails. However, the backlash against Tesla’s Model S crash—which may have been a braking failure—shows that consumers don’t believe the onus is on them to avoid accidents once the system takes control, regardless of manufacturer warnings.

That disconnect between the driver and manufacturer isn’t going to go away, says Szakaly, so manufacturers should ensure that their car or fleet is fully equipped to deal with all types of ignorance from drivers.

“There’s a 100 percent certainty that if we don’t have mandated service intervals someone’s system is not going to be properly maintained, and there’s a 100 percent certainty that will end catastrophically in some way,” he said.

Questions on who is to blame are bound to become even more complex when automotive-tech-ridesharing parterships are formed. If you use an autonomous Uber taxi built by BMW, is the responsibility on Uber or BMW for a safe ride? If Fiat builds an autonomous car with Google’s self-driving system inside, who is to blame if you crash? What about if you rent your Audi car with Google’s self-driving system to Uber for a few hours and a rider crashes?

David Curry

David Curry