What once seemed like a feature in a sci-fi movie is now becoming a reality. Nineteen companies intend to have self-driving cars on the market in the next year. The future of driving lies in this technology. It is already used in cars and trucks in some limited capacity. It’s likely you’ll share the road with automated vehicles, or drive one yourself, sooner than later.
Who is Liable for a Self-Driving Car Accident?
Self-driving cars are designed to sense the environment and move safely with little to no human interaction. Even when they become fully automated, drivers won’t necessarily be 100% free of liability. As with any car accident, vehicle owners may be at-fault for a variety of reasons, including failure to upkeep their cars.
Drivers aside, self-driving cars come with other complications. Manufacturing companies are often blamed when a faulty part malfunctions in a human-operated vehicle. But several companies are responsible for the technology that goes into modern vehicles. Lawsuits involving multiple parties in these accidents are likely to be especially lengthy and detailed.
Five Eras of Safety
Since the middle of 20th century, car manufacturers have heavily focused on improving safety with each model they release. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration highlights the most definitive advancements of their time.
Driver Assistance: 1950-2000
In 1964, seat belts begin to come standard in all new passenger vehicles. Vehicles are mainly human-controlled during this 50-year period. Features like anti-lock braking and cruise control relieve drivers of some of their effort.
Partial Automation: 2000-2010
During this time, vehicles have combined automation functions, but drivers need to be engaged in driving the car. Technology such as blind spot detection, lane departure warning, and forward collision warning anticipate dangers people cannot. Studies show that Electronic Stability Control helps to reduce single-car accidents by up to 53%.
Conditional Automation: 2010-2016
A driver is a necessity but is not required at all times to monitor the vehicle or the environment. The driver must be ready to take control of the vehicle with notice from the automated system. Examples of these features are advanced driver assistance features, lane centering assist, rear cross traffic alert, rear view video systems, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian automatic emergency braking, and rear auto emergency braking.
High Automation: 2016-2025
The vehicle is capable of performing all functions under certain conditions. The driver can have the option to control the vehicle. The features in this category are partially automated safety features, lane keeping assist, self-park, traffic jam assist, and adaptive cruise control.
Full Automation: 2025 and beyond
The vehicle is capable of performing all driving functions under all circumstances. Drivers may have the option to control their vehicles, but can take their full attention from the road to eat, sleep, read, and do practically anything they please. Features include fully automated safety features and highway autopilot.
Would self-driving cars reduce accidents?
According to the NHTSA, 94% of all road accidents are caused by driver error. Many automotive automation experts believe that fully and partially automated vehicles will reduce the number of fatalities and injuries caused by those accidents.
Understanding Liability in a Self-driving Car Accident
Self-driving cars are relatively new so liability in an accident involving such cars hasn’t been clearly established by law. Many factors will go into establishing who is at fault.
Normally if the driver is negligent, the insurance company pays for the negligence of the driver and the driver may suffer criminal penalties. However, in cases where the self-driving car is found to have malfunctioned in any way, the responsibility may be under product liability principles, making the manufacturer of the vehicle or the manufacturer of the automation system the at-fault party. Local government bodies may also be liable for allowing self-driving cars on the roads without appropriate testing.
Rideshare Apps and Self-Driving Cars
The issue of liability is murkier when rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft are involved. If the automated vehicle is owned and operated by a ride-share company, multiple parties may be responsible. Rideshare companies may have some liability for failing to properly maintain vehicles and to appropriately train workers.
Existing Self-Driving Car Crash Lawsuits
The first fatal case was a Tesla driver. He was killed when he crashed into a tractor trailer. Some evidence suggests that the driver was inattentive and that the auto drive system repeatedly warned the driver to disengage auto drive and take manual control. Similar incidents have also happened where details are less clear. No other fatalities have been reported in those cases involving Tesla.
The most relevant case came from Tempe, Arizona. A self-driving Uber SUV killed a pedestrian at 38 MPH. She walked off the sidewalk and stepped on to the road. It also seems by most accounts that she came out of the shadows and may not have been detected by vehicle sensors. She also appeared to be jaywalking.
Uber and the vehicle manufacturer could have no liability if it is proved that her actions led to the accident. If the Uber vehicle failed to recognize the pedestrian, then Uber, the car manufacturer and the manufacturer of the technology could be held singly or jointly responsible. The state of Arizona may also be held partially responsible for allowing the self-driving car on the road.
The truth of the matter is that self-driving cars are a recent phenomenon and there just is not enough information available to immediately give clear and decisive liability judgments.
When to Hire a Car Accident Attorney
Self-driving cars may seem a while away and legal cases have yet to set precedents about liability in these cases. Even so, you should contact an experienced car accident lawyer if you’ve been involved in an accident.
About the Author of this Page: The above information was written or reviewed by one of the attorneys at The Eberst Law Firm who have extensive experience trying legal cases outside and inside courtrooms throughout Florida. This article was also extensively researched to ensure that all information is accurate and up to date. If you want to know more about the author of this page, view our our attorney bios here.