Who is Liable When a Self-Driving Car Crashes?
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. If you suffered a crash involving a self-driving car, then our legal team can help determine who is at fault.
Seek support from our experienced Philadelphia car accident attorneys at the Reiff Law Firm by dialing (215) 709-6940 to evaluate your potential claim for free.
Risks Associated with Driverless Cars
Technology grows and changes every single day. Netflix replaced video rental stores, Google knows everything, and cell phones recognize faces. It was only a matter of time before motor vehicles could drive themselves. Most people probably contemplate the idea of autonomous cars and think, “What could be better?” Gone are the days when people had to drive to the library to do research, pick up the phone to order takeout, and look at a paper map to get from A to B. The driverless car is just another means of convenience and a symbol of how far technology has come, especially in the last two decades.
There is a risk for collision any time a person puts the key in the ignition and presses the gas pedal. Driverless cars are a completely different animal from manual and automatic transmissions. Autonomous vehicles are designed to drive conservatively. They feature cameras that allow built-in software to interpret traffic lights and road signs. Their sensors detect movement (or lack thereof) from other vehicles and pedestrians.
The programming and software components behind self-driving cars are undeniably impressive. They represent an advancement in technology that could bring independence to people who cannot drive themselves whether it be for reasons such as age, disability, or illness. Self-driving cars have the potential to make our highways safer and reduce the number of motor vehicle deaths that occur each year. There are inquiries regarding the level of precision by which driverless cars can mimic human reaction and movement. While they do contain sensors, driverless vehicles do not have the ability to read the body language and human signals of other drivers. How fast can autonomous cars react to the sudden maneuvers of other vehicles? Will their systems crash if their software does not recognize certain signs or roadblocks? These are questions that remain unanswered.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Liability for Collisions With Driverless Cars in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania is still in the process of passing legislation that will allow for testing and regulation of driverless cars. In February 2017, Senate Bill 427 was introduced to the Pennsylvania legislature. This bill provides that by no later than January 1, 2020, laws and regulations will be put in place for civil, criminal, and insurance liability of autonomous vehicles. It will undoubtedly be a while before the state introduces autonomous vehicles to its roadways. If and when autonomous vehicles do become part of the daily commute, the question looms about whether traffic safety will improve or if Pennsylvania personal injury lawyers will have their hands full with injury claims.
Some people predict that autonomous vehicles will eventually do away with auto insurance altogether. For the time being, a few states have spoken about plans for various policies that will potentially define who can be held liable in a collision with a driverless car. Michigan passed legislation that holds a manufacturer liable if a driverless car’s operating system malfunctions. Manufacturers of driverless cars have also expressed disparate views as to who should be held liable in a collision. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, has said that his company should only be held liable if a court finds that a design defect caused the crash. He has said that in any other circumstance, the driver’s own auto insurance company should be responsible for losses. Håkan Samuelsson, CEO of Volvo, affirmed that whenever one of Volvo’s vehicles is in full autonomous mode, the company will accept full liability in the event of a collision.
Executives at Google and Mercedes have said that once their autonomous cars are on the market, they will accept liability for crashes. They expressed anticipation that there will be fewer crashes as technology progresses. These statements should be taken with a grain of salt as there is no way to truly know what kind of impact autonomous cars will have on America’s roadways. If traffic accidents increase, it would not be a surprise to hear that Volvo, Google, and Mercedes retracted their initial promises.
Examples of When Manufacturers are Liable for Crashes Involving Self-Driving Cars
There are multiple examples of situations where manufacturers are liable for crashes involving self-driving cars. Our Pennsylvania personal injury lawyers can help obtain compensation if your collision stems from any of the following potential sources:
Self-driving cars are equipped with sensors that are responsible for detecting obstacles and pedestrians. A manufacturer may be liable for an accident that occurs because of a self-driving car’s sensor malfunction. For instance, a malfunctioning sensor may cause a collision by failing to detect a pedestrian crossing a road. In that case, the victim could sue the self-driving vehicle’s manufacturer for the damages the accident caused.
Furthermore, you may be able to sue a self-driving car’s manufacturer if your collision happened as the result of a software glitch. As an example, a programming error in a vehicle’s software may cause the car to misinterpret traffic signals, leading to an intersection accident. In this situation, the manufacturer may be held liable for victim’s injuries.
Inadequate Cybersecurity Measures
Self-driving cars have connectivity features that allow them to communicate with other vehicles and infrastructure systems. However, inadequate cybersecurity measures may allow hackers to gain unauthorized access to your car’s control system and manipulate its actions, resulting in an accident. If your crash happened because a self-driving car was not equipped with adequate cybersecurity, then you may sue the vehicle’s manufacturer.
Examples of Evidence Used to Establish Liability for a Self-Driving Car Crash
In order to recover damages for injuries caused by a self-driving car crash, you must present evidence that proves the defendant in your case is at fault. The following are all examples of evidence that our Chester County car accident lawyers may utilize:
Data from the Autonomous Vehicle
Self-driving cars are equipped with various sensors, cameras, and other technologies that collect data during operation. This data can include information on the vehicle’s speed, direction, braking patterns, and responses to certain events. Analyzing this data can provide insights into the failures of a self-driving system.
Event Data Recorder (EDR) Information
Similar to black boxes in airplanes, some self-driving cars are equipped with event data recorders that capture crucial information leading up to and during an accident. EDR data may include details such as vehicle speed, throttle position, steering angles, and engagement of safety systems. Retrieving and analyzing this data can help reconstruct the events leading to the crash.
Maintenance and Diagnostic Records
Maintenance and diagnostic records of the self-driving car can provide insights into whether the vehicle was properly maintained and functioning correctly at the time of the accident. Any history of malfunctions, repairs, or software updates may be relevant in determining liability.
Eyewitness testimony can be very helpful when seeking to establish fault for your self-driving car accident. Witnesses who observed your crash may provide both written and oral statements that help establish how or why your accident occurred. Accordingly, you should always attempt to retrieve contact information from potential eyewitnesses in the immediate aftermath of your collision if you can. Afterwards, our team can help when reaching out for the witnesses’ potential cooperation.
Expert Witness Testimony
Expert witness testimony can also help establish fault for a self-driving car accident. These types of witnesses are considered experts because they have completed the necessary training, education, and experience in their specific fields. They are usually summoned to explain complicated theories of fault. For example, after a self-driving car accident, an engineer who specializes in designing self-driving cars may be summoned to explain why the vehicle at issue malfunctioned.
Private Surveillance Footage
Private surveillance footage can also be presented to establish fault for a self-driving car accident. There are several potential sources of relevant surveillance footage. For instance, a nearby driver’s dashboard camera may record the events leading up to a self-driving car accident. Further, a home’s doorbell camera may capture a crash that occurs in a residential neighborhood.
Parties in control of pertinent surveillance footage may not store the footage for very long. It is important you begin looking for such evidence as quickly as possible after your self-driving car crash.
Photos from the Scene
Finally, photos from the scene of your self-driving car crash may also help identify contributing factors. You should always attempt to take photos at the scene of your accident if you can. Afterwards, our team can help analyze any photos you took during your free case review.
Examples Where Car Manufacturers were Held Liable
Multiple noteworthy accidents involving autonomous driving systems have already occurred, and some manufacturers in the U.S. have stated they are willing to take responsibility for accidents caused by their auto-drive systems. Meanwhile, other manufacturers have denied responsibility. An experienced Allentown car accident lawyer will be able to accurately assess liability for any accidents involving self-driving cars.
The following auto manufacturers have already gone on record as to how they want liability to be assessed in cases involving their auto drive vehicles:
Mercedes to Accept Liability When Auto-Pilot is Engaged
Mercedes’ new Drive-Pilot system has already been approved for select German highways for use at speeds below 40mph. Mercedes’ technology appears more advanced than any other auto-drive systems to date, being dubbed a “Level 3” technology instead of the other “Level 2” technologies already at use in the U.S. This system will launch in the U.S. later this year.
The auto manufacturer appears confident in their new technology, as they have stated they will take full legal responsibility for accidents that occur while Drive-Pilot is engaged. Mercedes Drive-Pilot senior development manager Gregor Kugelmann went so far as to suggest that a driver could pay zero attention to the road ahead, play on their phones, and even watch a movie.
Problems with this technology and this system for determining fault might still occur, however, if the system disengages by accident or before it is supposed to. In cases where a driver is not prepared for the system to disengage or does not know the system has disengaged, there is no existing legal doctrine for assigning fault.
Volvo Accepts Liability for Self-Driving Cars
Volvo’s President and Chief Executive Håkan Samuelsson also said that the company would accept full liability for car accidents whenever one of its cars is in autonomous mode. Volvo has not elaborated on this claim to accept full liability, but it appears that Volvo drivers should not be held liable for accidents that occur when their vehicle is in self-driving mode.
Again, this makes no mention of what happens if the self-driving mode disengages without the driver’s knowledge.
Google Accepted “Some Responsibility” When Their Self-Driving Car Hits Bus
In 2016, Google reported that one of its self-driving vehicles struck a bus in Mountain View, California. According to the report, a self-driving Lexus RX450h sought to get around some sandbags when it struck a bus while re-entering the center of the lane. Google stated that they clearly bear some responsibility but have since refined their software to better handle such situations in the future.
U.S. Department of Transportation Investigates Tesla
Auto manufacturer Tesla has fought against assuming liability for accidents involving their self-driving cars. However, in 2021, the U.S. Department of Transportation opened an investigation into Tesla’s auto-driving system after 11 accidents were reported since 2018, resulting in 17 injuries and one death.
In the report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has stated that in each of the accidents, Tesla models in self-driving mode encountered first responder scenes and struck one or more vehicles involved. However, Tesla’s autonomous driving system still requires drivers to have hands on the wheel. This allows Tesla to argue that the human driver is still “in control” when one of their cars is in self-driving mode.
Could the Owner of an Auto-Drive Car Still Be Held Liable?
Situations may still arise where the owner of an autonomous car will be held responsible for an accident. If a self-driving vehicle requires specific service or maintenance to run optimally, the owner of the vehicle can be held liable for an accident if a failure to maintain contributed to the crash.
Furthermore, once a driver takes their vehicle off of auto-pilot, they are responsible for any accidents that occur thereafter. Issues may arise with auto-drive features disengaging during emergency situations or because of errors with the programming. Complaints have also been made against auto manufacturers that require the driver’s hands to be on the wheel while self-driving mode is engaged. According to these complaints, the auto-drive feature remained engaged even after the driver took their hands off the wheel or even climbed into the back seat of the car.
What if You Share Fault for a Collision with a Self-Driving Car?
There are certain situations where drivers may share fault for their collisions with self-driving cars. For instance, fault may be shared for a collision in which a speeding driver was struck by a self-driving car that made an improper lane change. In that case, the speeding driver may still collect compensation for their injuries, but the amount of payment they are awarded can be limited.
Pennsylvania courts will abide by the rules of modified comparative fault when assigning damages in car accident cases. This means that damages are apportioned based on each party’s percentage of blame. For instance, if you are 30% responsible for your crash while the defendant is 70% at fault, then they will be ordered to pay for 70% of the damages you incurred while you must account for the leftover 30% on your own. It is important to note that if you are over 50% at fault for your crash, then you will be unable to recover financial compensation from another party.
After a collision with a self-driving car, the at-fault party may try to shift blame onto you in order to avoid paying for the damages you suffered. Assistance from our legal team can be very valuable when gathering evidence to prove that the defendant in your case is at fault.
Call Our Attorneys for Help After an Accident Involving a Self-Driving Car
Liability can always be contested. Therefore, it is important to contact a Bucks County car accident lawyer after a self-driving car crash to review your case. 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 assessment call (215) 709-6940 or contact us online.