Posted on Jan 24, 2014

As Google and all of the auto industry giants continue to perfect their autonomous (self-driving) car technology, the beginning of a new era of transportation draws closer and closer. But before this technology redefines “driving” as we know it, there are plenty of legal questions that need to be ironed out. Mainly, who’s at fault if an autonomous car causes an accident?

Before we speculate as to who will/should be liable for autonomous car crashes, it’s worth noting that these vehicles have performed remarkably well in terms of accident avoidance. Google’s autonomous car has logged over 300,000 miles without causing an accident in “autonomous” mode. (NOTE: All self-driving cars can be driven manually or autonomously.)

Depending on which study you find most credible, human error is responsible for 80-95% of car accidents. Likewise, some researchers believe autonomous cars would reduce accident figures accordingly if everybody owned one. But all artificial intelligence is inherently flawed in some way, so it stands to reason that autonomous car crashes are inevitable. When that day comes, who pays: the driver or the manufacturer?

How Exactly Does it Work?

Essentially, autonomous cars utilize sensors, radars and GPS technology to detect roadways, traffic signals, other cars and just about anything else you can imagine. The fully autonomous cars control the braking, accelerating and steering to safely navigate the roads.

One important feature to keep in mind is that autonomous cars can switch from “autonomous” to “manual” driving mode at any moment. All the driver has to do is press the gas pedal or brakes to immediately take full control of the vehicle.

Remarkably, autonomous cars have been designed to detect when they’re losing control. In a scenario where the vehicle doesn’t recognize its surroundings well enough and “manual” driving might be safer, it’s designed to alert the driver in time to take the wheel and avert disaster.

What Are the Legal Ramifications?

As exciting as the autonomous car sounds, it can be viewed as a double-edged sword from a legal perspective. Automobile manufacturers are always eager to incorporate the latest and greatest technological advancements into their newest models. But the thought of being held liable for autonomous car accidents might curb their enthusiasm a bit.

These days, when accidents occur, motorists end up in complicated liability disputes with insurance companies, which require the assistance of a skilled personal injury attorney. When autonomous cars hit the market, it will become even more complicated because large automobile companies will enter the equation.

If someone is driving an autonomous car in autonomous mode and gets into an accident, one might conclude that the manufacturer is at fault. And if the autonomous car is in manual mode at the time of the accident, it stands to reason that the driver would be at fault.

But if the car is in “autonomous” mode at the time of an accident, the manufacturer may very well argue that the driver should have switched it to “manual” to avoid the accident. And if an autonomous car gets hit by a reckless, but fully insured non-autonomous car, one can bet the insurance company will argue that the autonomous car should have been able to avoid the collision, regardless of how reckless the other driver was.

What if the car is in autonomous mode and alerts the driver to take control, but the driver fails to avoid the accident? The question will become whether or not the driver had enough time to adjust. These are but a few of the potential dilemmas incurred with this technology.

However, autonomous cars won’t be a complete headache for tort litigators. Engineers have noted that the sensors and radars on autonomous cars will provide crucial data to help prove more conclusively than ever what really took place in the moments leading up to an accident.

The next best thing in transportation might arrive sooner rather than later. But before that day comes, there are plenty of legal dilemmas that need to be sorted out.

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Jill Erin Wellskopf
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Director of Marketing, Hupy and Abraham