What happens when GPS systems cause car crashes.

How we get from here to there.
June 9 2010 3:34 PM

It Wasn't Me, Officer! It Was My GPS.

What happens when we blame our navigation devices for our car crashes.

(Continued from Page 1)

While it might seem, given the events described in the first paragraph, that the courts should be awash in liability claims on improper GPS guidance (and who hasn't gotten a bum set of directions?), in fact there seem to be no decisions on record. But a lawsuit recently filed against Google by a pedestrian injured when Google Maps sent her on a walking route without sidewalks may be a portent.

The novelty of the legal terrain is hinted at by the presence of just one article in a law journal exploring evolving GPS liability issues as applied to driving. This is the wonderfully titled "Oops, My GPS Made Me Do It!" written by John E. Woodward and published in the University of Dayton Law Review. One fundamental issue, Woodward notes, is locating the actual source of the problem: Was the miscalculation some fault of the software, the hardware, or a temporary glitch in triangulation owing to a defect on the satellite? And one of the most interesting questions Woodward raises is whether the directions given by a GPS unit represent a product or a service (in which case, product liability claims would not apply).

To answer these questions, he looks back to a number of cases involving aeronautical charts, which "similar to modern GPS automotive products … help guide pilots from point A to point B." In one representative case, Saloomey v. Jeppesen & Co., the survivors of a plane crash filed suit against Jeppesen, the maker of the chart, for mistakenly indicating that an airfield depicted on the chart was equipped with a complete instrument-landing system (to enable pilots to land using only instruments). "Tragically," writes Woodward, "Jeppesen's area chart was incorrect and the airfield was only equipped with a system that would indicate whether the pilot was on the proper flight path." As a result, the pilot misestimated the altitude of his approach, crashing into a ridge. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, finding in favor of liability—and ruling that Jeppesen's charts were a product—wrote: "By publishing and selling the charts, Jeppesen undertook a special responsibility, as seller, to insure that consumers will not be injured by the use of the charts."

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Despite warnings (see this Garmin page, with its roster of disclaimers, for example) on GPS units, it does not seem outlandish to think this court's reasoning might apply to navigation systems. One potential out for the defendant, notes Woodward, is "comparative fault"—i.e., the extent to which a driver shares responsibility in the crash. "The manufacturer will have a better case for applying comparative fault," he writes, "when it is obvious that the end-user deviated from what a reasonable person in the end-user's position would have done. For example, if there was an abundance of signage indicating the name of the street and the street's one-way status, the end-user will more than likely have some comparative fault leveled against him or her." Another approach, as attorney Peter Neger argues in Law Technology News, is for manufacturers to argue "that disregarding visual cues like railroad tracks in favor of blind reliance on the GPS navigational device constitutes misuse of the product and thereby voids the limited warranty." (Then again, it's easy to imagine a successful lawsuit in which a driver has turned onto train tracks because a traffic sign is missing, even though he or she conceivably should still have seen the tracks.)

The legal implications of navigation-system error are interesting for one other reason: their relevance to another, related, set of impending legal and regulatory issues raised by the new spate of driver-assist technologies and even the prospect of fully driverless, automated (or "autonomous") driving. As the Rand Corp. has noted, "as of today, no regulations exist for autonomous vehicle technologies," even though the marketplace is filled with such technologies, ranging from Volvo's City Safety (which promises low-speed emergency braking when the system detects a hazard) to the "attention assist" and "automatic emergency braking" systems found in Mercedes-Benz's E-class cars. It's easy to imagine a legal claim from a driver who is seriously injured when he rear-ends a car that had come to a sudden stop on a highway if, for some reason, his automatic emergency braking had failed to engage. But as the striking vehicle in a rear-end crash typically assumes liability—precisely because the standard of prudent driving is being able to stop in time if the driver ahead does come to a sudden stop—would a company be able to demonstrate "comparative fault"? Would rulings in favor of the plaintiffs in such cases have a chilling effect on innovation in safety technologies? (As the Rand report notes, auto manufacturers resisted air bags, in part, because they worried about shifting legal responsibility in crashes from drivers to themselves.)

As Rand points out, we define negligent behavior against a standard of what counts as unreasonable behavior—a definition that may evolve as computer-assisted driving becomes more widespread. And the car manufacturers may have to walk something of a high wire. "Automakers," writes Rand, "will want to preserve the social norm that crashes are primarily the moral and legal responsibility of the driver, both to minimize their own liability and to ensure safety." And yet automakers, to sell their vehicles, turn toward increasingly sophisticated safety technology, sold with the implicit promise that the car will make such crashes vanishingly rare events.

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Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.

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