Controlling the Risk of Product Liability Suits for Manufacturers of Robots and AI-Driven Systems

Guest Post By Stephen Wu, Shareholder, Silicon Valley Law Group - San Jose, CA


Robots and AI systems hold the promise of bringing widespread and extensive benefits to society.  Robots will increasingly have the ability to perform the dull, dirty, or dangerous work that humans perform today, saving humans from boredom, health problems, injuries, or even death.  As just one example, autonomous vehicles (AVs) may be able to save tens of thousands of lives each year in the U.S., and many more worldwide, reducing traffic, saving energy, and providing mobility to those who cannot drive conventional cars.  Nonetheless, robots, AI systems, and AVs will inevitably have some accidents.  On balance, they are likely to prevent many more accidents and much more harm than they cause, but there will be at least some accidents involving these technologies that would not have occurred with human-controlled systems.

Robots and AVs in particular act in the physical world.  Accidents involving these systems are inevitable.  Some of these accidents will cause catastrophic injury for those involved in the accident.  Even worse, if a defect or cyber attack could compromise every instance of a particular robot or an entire network, fleet, or industry, the defect or attack could cause widespread simultaneous accidents throughout the country or even the world.  Imagine, for instance, a future in which regional transportation centers in metropolitan centers control the dispatch and navigation of AVs in the region.  Imagine further that a sudden defect causes all the AVs under control of the system to crash all at once in a major metropolitan area like New York.  The impact of such an event in terms of harm, property damage, injury, and deaths could easily exceed an event like the attacks on September 11, 2001.


In the worst-case scenario for the industry, manufacturers could face numerous suits that force some of them to exit the robotics market and cause others to decide not to enter the market in the first place.  They could perceive that the sales are not worth the risk.  Such an outcome could be tragic if it results in manufacturers not bringing otherwise life-saving and socially beneficial robots to the market.  Manufacturers, however, can implement practices to minimize the likelihood, frequency, and magnitude of accidents, and thereby control the risk of liability.  By implementing these practices, manufacturers can maintain the profitability they would need to offer robots in the market.

Manufacturers can take steps to manage product liability risk and proactively prepare today, during the design of robots and AI systems, to prevail in future litigation for accidents that have yet to occur.  Most importantly, manufacturers that take a proactive approach to analyze risk, adhere to industry standards, and document an effective commitment to product safety will place themselves in the best position possible to defend future product liability litigation.  They can further manage their risk through robust insurance coverage, industry collaboration on safe practices, and effective records and information policies to document their safety programs.  In sum, product liability is a serious risk to robot and AI system manufacturers, but the proactive approach to risk management can maximize safety and minimize liability risk over time.

Giancarlo Mori