How Will Self-Driving Cars Affect Lemon Law? Three Bold Predictions

Self-driving cars have been a human fantasy for years. In the past decade, we’ve seen a great deal of progress in turning this sci-fi pipe dream into a reality. Uber has been experimenting with self-driving cars for ride sharing and Tesla has been pioneering a momentous shift to software dependency in vehicles.

While it’s easy to salivate over the added convenience of autonomous vehicles, many people do not take into account the ripple effect. Cars have been around for over a century and have come a very long way in terms of design, functionality, capabilities, and more. However, regardless of all the innovation and breakthroughs in technology, the common denominator has remained the same. That is, of course, the fact that the vehicle is operated by a human. This very concept has made way for all kinds of laws, regulations, requirements, and much, much more. When you remove this foundational aspect, most of the current laws regarding transportation will need to be re-evaluated.

Perhaps more importantly than the laws surrounding human error are the laws surrounding manufacturer error or lemon law.

At this point in time, it’s hard to see the specifics of how exactly autonomous cars will directly impact lemon law. However, based on the information out there, we have three major predictions for how the law will evolve once self-driving vehicles begin to flood the roads. Let’s discuss.

1. Software Will Be as Important as Hardware (If Not More)

Lemon law was enacted in the 1970’s. At this time, the idea of self-driving cars was merely a work of science fiction. Keep in mind, this was a time when owning a home computer was still a very new concept.

When lemon law was created, the intention was (and still is) to protect consumers against faulty vehicles covered by the manufacturer warranty. Now, a vehicle’s faultiness under lemon law must pose as a significant risk to the safety of the driver and overall functionality of the vehicle. When the law was created, this accounted for hardware-related issues. These included problems with the engine, transmission, steering, braking, electrical, etc.

In a self-driving car, the software and GPS will be crucial elements that are just as important (if not more important) as the hardware. The software will dictate where a vehicle goes, how it interacts with other vehicles, when it brakes/accelerates, and much more. Any issue with the software could put the passenger in serious danger. That said, once autonomous cars start to become widespread, it’s very likely that consumers and auto manufacturers alike will need to re-think the meaning of a “defect” under the lemon law to account for software-related defects. Moreover, lemon attorneys will need to refocus their strategies accordingly.

2. The Definition of a “Substantial Defect” Will Change

In the state of California, a “substantial defect” under lemon law is a warranty-covered defect that substantially impairs the use, value, or safety of the product.

To reiterate, software will play a critical role in lemon law in the futuristic age of autonomous cars. Now, the definition of a “substantial defect” will probably remain the same in regards to it compromising the use, value, or safety of the vehicle. However, the second prong of the lemon law referring to a “reasonable number of repair attempts” could possibly see some change.

For instance, under the California lemon law presumption, a reasonable number of attempts is defined in a number of ways:

  • The manufacturer has made two or more attempts to repair a warranty-covered defect that could cause serious bodily injury or death.
  • The manufacturer has made four or more attempts to repair the same warranty-covered defect.
  • The vehicle has been out of service for repair a cumulative total of 30 days for any defect.

Most of the time, when there is an issue with a vehicle’s hardware, the driver can likely tell something is wrong pretty quickly. They might hear a weird sound coming from under the hood, the steering might feel a little off, the brakes are squealing, etc. In many of these situations, substantial defects can be detected and addressed before there is a chance for them to actually cause serious injury or death.

However, when a vehicle is dependent on software, the margin for error becomes A LOT smaller. In an autonomous car, the passenger can ideally sit back and enjoy the ride while the vehicle does all the driving. So, if the passenger is free to zone out, be on their phone, or even take a nap, it’s very possible that issues with the software will not be detected until it’s too late. Moreover, these defects could present themselves in a split second and have potentially fatal consequences without the passenger having a chance to intervene. For example, the software could make the vehicle accelerate instead of brake, or fail to sense a construction zone or detour.

That said, having two, four, or more attempts to fix a software issue is putting passengers and those around them at serious risk. So, our bold prediction for autonomous software impacting the definition of a “lemon,” the number of repair attempts to reach the “reasonable” threshold may be greatly reduced. Instead, any issue with the software could immediately rule a vehicle a lemon. This is due to the lack of quick human intervention and razor thin margin for error.

3. Warranty Periods May Need Extension for Software Defects

Currently, the lemon law may only apply during the manufacturer warranty and the state in which the vehicle was purchased or leased. For the aforementioned presumption to apply to a vehicle in California, the substantial defect and repair attempts must present occur within the first 18 months of the delivery date or before 18,000 miles accrue on the odometer.

These time/distance windows were put into effect when hardware faultiness was the primary factor in lemon law. When you throw software into the mix, this all changes. This is because software must be updated periodically. These updates can happen on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. With every new update comes the possibility of new bugs, glitches, and malfunctions.

That said, it’s very possible that software defects will become their own separate aspect of lemon law. Furthermore, due to the fast-moving nature of new software, warranty periods for these issues might not even be created with a timeframe or mileage requirement.


Driverless vehicles are the future of transportation. With such a drastic shift in everyday life comes big changes in the laws that regulate them. In terms of the lemon law, the introduction of software dependence will be the biggest factor that alters the fine print.
As both consumers and lemon law experts, we are very excited to see what the future of driving looks like!

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