What Liability is Associated with Being Injured in a Driverless Car Crash?

The age of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles is upon us. While many people may still not believe that completely autonomous vehicles are right around the corner, the fact is that they are already here and maybe on streets and highways frequented by regular drivers within the next few years. However, they pose a serious question as to who is liable for a driverless car accident? 

In Los Angeles, for instance, the driver is liable for a car accident. Most accidents happen because the driver makes a mistake or is driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Interestingly proponents of driverless cars or self-driving cars as they are called the claim that computers will be more efficient. When computer-driven vehicles hit the streets in vast numbers, they claim that it will dramatically decrease traffic congestion and reduce accidents, which are often the result of human error. 

The Department of Transportation says that 94% of accidents are caused by human error. So, the implication is that autonomous vehicles will reduce accidents. When in fact that isn’t going to be the case. All you have to do is look at industries like shipping, aviation, and rail, where the autonomous systems either don’t work as intended or flat out fail, requiring a human operator to take over. 

It isn’t farfetched to assume that driverless cars will be the cause of accidents in which case who do you blame? Who is going to bear the burden of ensuring driverless cars? Who’s going to pay for damages and injuries caused by these vehicles? These are important questions that experts are working on today before autonomous cars go mainstream. 

Autonomous Cars May Struggle to Avoid Most Crashes 

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) recently conducted a study that suggests, autonomous vehicles will not be able to avoid two-thirds of crashes. The study showed that while self-driving vehicles were better at detecting the world, thanks to the latest array of sensors, and a 360-degree worldview, they will still crash. As for the argument, which suggests that if “only autonomous vehicles were on the road, there would be no crashes,” data from the study suggests that isn’t going to be the case.  

The study conducted drew upon information from the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey. It consisted of 5000 police reports and were mainly collisions, which resulted in at least one vehicle needing to be towed away as well as the need to call emergency services. The crash factors were split into five categories:  

  • The ability to “Sense and Perceive” problems which include things like distractions, visibility impairment, failure to recognize hazards early on, etc. 
  • Impairment caused by drugs, alcohol, falling asleep or medical issues. 
  • The ability to predict errors. Usually, this happens when drivers wrongly judge the gap in traffic, aren’t able to estimate how fast they are going, or have made other incorrect assumptions about what other drivers are doing. 
  • Performance or maneuvering errors which include using incorrect maneuvers, mistakes with controlling the vehicle, and overcompensating. 
  • Errors like driving at the wrong pace based on prevailing road conditions. Leaving little distance from another vehicle and driving too aggressively were also considered. 

However, other than these, the study determined that sensing and perception errors accounted for 24% percent of crashes, 10% could be attributed to incapacitation. So, vehicles that can see better, and not get drunk will do away with these types of crashes. That means there is potential for autonomous vehicles to reduce crashes by a third. 

Driverless Car Crashes Could Hold Manufacturers Liable

Every feature built into a self-driving vehicle comes from the manufacturer. Features like pedestrian recognition, speed limit identification, etc. are all manufacturer dependent. Furthermore, updates like those issued by Tesla to its vehicles could improve or break what a vehicle is able to sense or how it drives itself. Since the driver isn’t at the wheel or does not take the wheel leading to an accident, it is the vehicle’s manufacturer who may be held liable for an accident. 

The implications for holding a company like GM, with hundreds of their cars rolling off the assembly line each year responsible, is very different from that of Google, which has stated that they have no interest in making cars just the technology. There will need to be a legal shift from vehicular negligence, i.e., driver negligence to product liability. So, they can be claims against businesses that manufacture defective and maybe dangerous products. 

On roads today, people make product liability claims for things like if their Firestone or Bridgestone tires fail as they did in the 90s. Also, liability claims are made when something like the Takata airbags violently ruptures. In other words, if a company manufactures, markets, and sells a product that does not deliver on its promise and instead harms people, it is liable. 

Who Should You Sue?

The plaintiff in a car crash normally assigns blame to the driver or the vehicle’s manufacturer. It primarily depends on what caused the crash. If it involves an autonomous vehicle, there are four possible avenues: 

Sue The Vehicle’s Operator – In states like Nevada and Florida, the operator is defined as he or she who engages with the vehicle. This person can either be in or not be in the vehicle. In California, the operator is the person seated in the vehicle on the driver’s seat. If there is no driver, then the viability of such a claim is based on determining how autonomous the vehicle was at the time of the accident. For instance, if the vehicle ceded control to the driver, then they will be at fault. 

The Manufacturer – The plaintiff here will have to determine what part did the manufacturer play in the accident. Though states like Florida limit product liability for autonomous vehicle manufacturers. 

If The Company Takes Full Responsibility – Companies like Volvo are taking full responsibility for any collisions caused by their technology. 

Creator of the Technology – Now, this can include software developers and businesses that manufacturer the sensors that go on these vehicles. 

Conclusion – Changing Legal Landscape 

Many industry experts have said that there are signs that new laws will eventually be enacted which intervene to reduce liability for self-driving car operators. A new round of federal legislation, if passed, could mean that complaints arising from autonomous vehicle collisions or the injuries caused by them would be pushed into some type of private arbitration instead of the court of law. Not only will this reduce a citizen’s rights, but also it will prevent courts from hearing cases that could later produce further statutory precedents.  

However, it is hard to envision a future where anyone isn’t held liable for a fatal accident. The legal system is meant to hold people and corporations alike responsible. Accidents aren’t fixed with an update to the firmware, and so liability will have to be associated with those responsible for the vehicle not performing as it should.

While the legal landscape hasn’t changed yet or might not change drastically for the next three years, we can all expect it to when driverless vehicles are ready to go mainstream. Even though new laws may be enacted to bypass litigation, so that the vehicle manufacturer are given a pass or minimum liability till then, people will still need a car accident lawyer to represent their interests in the event of accidents involving driverless vehicles. 

Furthermore, as more driverless vehicles start taking to the roads, the higher incidence of accidents will prompt people to sit up and take notice of the situation. Lawyers, regular citizens, and lawmakers will all need to examine if driverless vehicles are worth the risk they potentially pose to everyone, both legally and physically. 

If you or a loved one were injured in a driverless vehicle and have questions, please contact us at (800) 818-1818. Our attorneys have decades of experience and can help you determine the right course of action.