Who is Liable When a Self-Driving Car Crashes?

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The promise and predictions of flying cars à la The Jetsons or Back to the Future, have long since receded into the historical rearview mirror. Today the cars of the future are not promised to fly through the skies thereby eliminating traffic jams, but to be fully autonomous vehicles that take the control out of fallible human hands. Automobile manufacturers claim that self-driving cars will reduce traffic while increasing highway safety. Some manufacturers, like Volvo, go so far as to claim that they will produce an injury-free car by 2020. While such proclamations are aspirational and certainly good for business, it is probably not achievable as even the best systems can fail due to programming errors or mechanical failures.

Safety Systems of the Future: Coming Soon?

Before full-fledge autonomous cars are introduced, elements of the systems that will one day constitute a fully autonomous system appear likely to continue to be introduced piecemeal.   Some technologies have already been introduced in full, or part, that include:

  • Active GPS safety features – Perhaps as transitionary technology intended to ease drivers into the idea of vehicles being aware of their surrounds, the application of GPS technology may be expanded. It may issue warnings that a sharp curve is ahead, or that your speed is unsafe for this stretch of roadway. Some aspects of this technology have already been incorporated into smartphone GPS applications like Waze that warns of road hazards, stopped vehicles, traffic and police activity.
  • Cars that “talk” – We have all had a close call:  you approach an intersection on a green light only for a car to speed through nearly causing a T-bone accident. Now, imagine if your car could communicate with other vehicles wirelessly and warn you (and the other driver) of the other vehicle’s approach. Perhaps eventually the vehicles would avoid the collision without any intervention from the driver.
  • Forward-collision avoidance – Already appearing in luxury and other high-end automobiles, the vehicle may apply its brakes when it detects a vehicle in front of it. Such systems can reduce fender-benders due to distractions in stop-and-go traffic.
  • Lane-assist features – When fatigue sets in, it’s common for drivers to swerve or otherwise have difficulty maintaining their lane. Utilizing cameras and software systems cars are able to assist a driver in remaining in their lane. This moderate assist likely foreshadows the human driver ceding increased control to automated systems as the technology improves.

Okay, But Who is Liable for the Accident?

The short story is that it depends on how these systems develop including the extent of the systems installed, how the driver interacts with them and amount of control ceded to the system. These factors and more are likely to influence the form of liability decided upon by regulators and lawmakers. Potential forms of accident liability could include:

  • Manufacturer liability – In a scenario where the driver cedes all control of the vehicle to automated systems, it is not a stretch to think that lawmakers may compel manufacturers to assume liability for their vehicles. However it is also quite conceivable that vehicle manufacturers may take a page out of the NRA’s, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, playbook and require some degree of human monitoring, interaction and control in vehicles. Such limited control may forestall attempts to shift liability as manufacturers will be able to plausibly deny at least some degree of liability.
  • Driver liability —  Should vehicles require human control in an emergency or other situations, it is possible a system similar to Pennsylvania’s current no-fault liability insurance system will be implemented.

In any case, the improvements to and more widespread deployment of accident reporting systems or “black boxes”, is likely to take much of the guesswork out of determining accident liability. No longer will determinations be dependent on the fallibilities of human memory and the specialized knowledge of accident reconstruction experts.  As the volume of accidents decreases and costs of administering claims fail, claims should be processed more quickly and the cost to insure vehicles will hopefully fall in proportion.

Accidents Caused by an Auto Computer System Malfunction

As technology advances, the law must also adapt and change to provide fundamental fairness and sound public policy. At The Reiff Law Firm we have provided dependable and trusted legal representation for more than 34 years. For your free consultation call (215) 246-9000 or contact us online.

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