Steering wheels may soon go the way of carburetors and four-wheel disk brakes. There is no mistaking the fact that the driverless car evolution is upon us. Companies like Tesla, Uber, and Google are leading the way; and from their recent success, it appears the public is eager for the transition.
Driverless Vehicles Create Benefits and Risks for the Consumer
There will be obvious benefits to this next generation of automobiles. Self-driving cars will mean fewer collisions due to human error, more free time while traveling, and greater access for elderly or disabled individuals. Traffic efficiency should increase dramatically once the transition is complete. Driverless vehicles will then be able to ascertain each other’s location via an electronic network without traditional vehicles getting in the way.
Self-driving vehicles will also create new risks for consumers. Problems are sure to arise as manufacturers adopt new and unproven technologies. Consider the tragic death of a Tesla enthusiast killed while traveling in autopilot mode. Despite its onboard radar and computer vision system, the vehicle failed to detect a tractor-trailer crossing its lane of travel. Autopilot did not apply the brakes and the Tesla struck the side of the truck, killing the driver.
In time, the benefits of driverless vehicles may outweigh their risks, but it is unrealistic to think they will ever operate perfectly. The question, then, is who will get stuck with the bill when an autonomous car comes off the factory floor with a defect?
The Song-Beverly Act Protects Consumers from New Car Defects
Protections are currently in place for those who buy new cars that turn out to be defective. In 1970, California enacted a “Lemon Law” addressing the warranty responsibilities of automobile manufacturers. The Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act, as the law is officially known, provides as follows:
- Owners and lessees of defective vehicles can insist that the manufacturer take appropriate action once it becomes evident that repair attempts have not been successful.
- The law applies to vehicles still under factory warranty and purchased in California for personal or small business use.
- All substantial defects are covered, as long as they were covered under the factory warranty.
- At least one attempt must be made to repair the vehicle at an authorized dealership. The number of additional attempts that must be made will vary, depending on the nature of the defect.
- Once the repair attempts prove unsuccessful, the manufacturer must replace or buyback the vehicle.
The Law Can Adapt to Changes in Automotive Technology
The Song-Beverly Act has been modified over the years to reflect changing circumstances and priorities. For example, in 2008, the legislature amended the law to cover vehicles belonging to active military who live in California, regardless of where their vehicles were purchased. As for the growing number of self-driving cars, the law as currently written is probably flexible enough to cover new types of defects.
California’s Lemon Law applies to nonconformities, defined as a defect that “substantially impairs the use, value, or safety” of the vehicle.
From faulty onboard sensors to software glitches, any serious defect in a driverless vehicle could arguably qualify as a nonconformity as that term is currently defined in the statute. Amendments to the law may not even be necessary. The number of Lemon Law claims involving these vehicles will likely have more to do with business decisions made by car company executives, rather than the new technology itself.
As Always, Vehicle Quality Will Require Manufacturers to Value People Over Profits
The new demand for driverless vehicles is a huge financial opportunity for carmakers. Right now they face a choice. They can rush the vehicles to market to cash in on the demand and beat the competition, or they can spend the time needed to thoroughly test the vehicles for safety and reliability. Government regulators will certainly have a say in the matter, but ultimately the choice to build quality vehicles – and to keep Lemon Law claims to a minimum – rests with the manufacturers.