Liability and Self-Driving Cars

November 14, 2018 | Attorney, Matthew Dolman
Liability and Self-Driving Cars

Who is Liable for a Self-Driving Car Accident?

There's no doubt about it: Americans will be using some form of self-driving automobiles in the very near future. Self-driving cars are already on the road, but we are still in the early stages of Automated Driving Systems (ADS) technology. In time, the majority of cars on American roads will be fully autonomous. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, a rough historical/forward-looking timeline for the adoption of ADS technology looks something like this: 2000 - 2010 - Automobiles came with discrete self-driving features:
  • Forward collision warning
  • Electronic stability control
  • Blind spot detection
  • Lane departure warning
2010 - 2016 - As the original features became standard, car makers added additional ADS features :
  • Rear cross traffic alert
  • Lane centering assist
  • Rearview video systems
  • Rear automatic emergency braking
  • Automatic emergency braking
  • Pedestrian automatic emergency braking
2016 - 2025 - ADS features that begin to take some autonomy from the driver appear:
  • Self-park
  • Partially automated safety features
  • Traffic jam assist
  • Lane-keeping assist
  • Adaptive cruise control
2025+ - Fully autonomous vehicles become increasingly common:
  • Fully autonomous safety features
  • Highway autopilot
The rise of fully autonomous vehicles will likely spur the continued growth of ridesharing, particularly for people who live in cities where parking and congestion cause significant difficulties and expense, and for those who cannot drive (particularly the elderly and those with disabilities).

Benefits and Problems Associated With Self-Driving Cars

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that 94 percent of severe crashes on US highways occur because of human error. Self-driving vehicles have the potential to remove human error from the equation. Many experts reasonably predict this will lead to a significant reduction in the number of traffic accidents. But, before that brighter future arrives, much more work will have to be done to ensure that self-driving vehicles are safe to take to the roads. Cybersecurity is a problem to be dealt with and about which the Department of Transportation is currently researching. Another question many have asked is who will be responsible when an automated vehicle crashes, and how insurance will work in those scenarios.

Self-Driving Car Crashes and Liability

We are at only the earliest stages of figuring out these liability issues. Thus far, the few accidents reported suggest that human error continues to play a role. For example, a self-driving Uber in Tempe, Arizona, crashed in 2017. The vehicle was an SUV, and the accident caused the automobile to flip on its side after the collision. One pedestrian was killed. It is believed this was the first accident occurring in an automated vehicle that resulted in the death of a person because of the force of impact. The car was traveling at a speed of 38 miles per hour. One of the first investigations into this case found that the pedestrian could have been at fault. The woman was jaywalking and stepped out of the shadows, off the median, and into the road. She moved into the path of the vehicle. An investigation was opened by the National Transportation Safety Board. This case has resulted in much more conversation concerning the future of self-driving cars and how liability will be determined. In a separate incident, a Tesla that was on autopilot collided with a tractor-trailer that turned left in front of the vehicle, which caused the death of the Tesla's operator. Before the accident occurred, the Tesla technology had allegedly been flashing a warning signal to its driver to disengage the autopilot setting and take the wheel.

Uber Self-Driving Cars and Liability

In an interview posted on the Stanford Law School blog, Stanford Law Professor Robert Rabin discussed potential liability issues relating to self-driving rideshare vehicles. Professor Rabin said that although he would have to know more about the details of the Tempe Uber crash to fully assess responsibility, he believed that tort law principles could be applied to find Uber negligent. He reasoned:
  • If the Uber self-driving car failed to note the presence of the pedestrian, the manufacturer of the vehicle and Uber would likely be responsible “under product liability principles.”
  • If the pedestrian was crossing the road late at night and was obscured by darkness, she could likely be found to be at least partially at fault.
  • If her conduct caused the accident to be unavoidable, it is possible that she could be found fully responsible, although this scenario seems unlikely.
The interviewer asked if allowing testing on real streets should occur before safety concerns are addressed. Professor Rabin responded that regulatory oversight varies abundantly among states. He added that Arizona is among the most lenient states about opening roads to ADS vehicles before a strict testing protocol is established. Another question explored whether there are any federal regulations that exist for ADS technology. Rabin answered that the NHTSA is the governmental entity that is charged to oversee motor vehicle safety, but it is possible that NHTSA will only provide an outline of regulations and then allow the states to take their own approaches. He continued by saying that the National Safety Transportation Board is the authority on accident investigations and has already involved itself in the Tempe accident.

Self-Driving Automobiles and Litigation

Reuters writer Tina Bellon reports that litigation in the Tempe case will likely become a battle among the ride-sharing company (Uber), technology suppliers, and the vehicle manufacturers. Bellon wonders if the self-driving car systems may have confidential indemnification agreements that companies developing self-driving car systems may have agreed upon to shield themselves legally. The possibility remains in the Tempe case that the automobile manufacturer, any companies that supplied the self-driving technology, and the safety driver behind the wheel that did not take over operation before the crash occurred, could potentially be sued.

Call the Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA if You Were Injured in a Clearwater Car Accident

If you sustained an injury in an accident involving a self-driving vehicle or ADS technology, you may be entitled to compensation. An experienced auto accident attorney can help you sort out the potentially complicated questions of liability involved in this emerging area of the law. Contact the Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA's Clearwater office online or by phone at (727) 451-6900 to schedule a free consultation and learn about how we may be able to help. Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA 800 North Belcher Road Clearwater, FL 33765 (727) 451-6900


Matthew Dolman

Personal Injury Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has successfully fought for more than 11,000 injured clients and acted as lead counsel in more than 1,000 lawsuits. Always on the cutting edge of personal injury law, Matt is actively engaged in complex legal matters, including Suboxone, AFFF, and Ozempic lawsuits.  Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess of $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.

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