The driverless vehicle is no longer science fiction. Fully autonomous vehicles are currently being tested on public roadways.
Yet, one large concern is acting as a roadblock to autonomous vehicles’ progress: liability. Who is at fault in a self-driving car accident? This is a complicated question.
When determining fault in a self-driving car accident, we cannot simply point the finger at one driver or another, as we would in a traditional car accident. Instead, we might point the finger at a technology — a product, rather than a person. This changes the legal standard entirely.
Self-driving car accidents are ultimately product liability claims, which are very different from negligence claims. Manufacturers of autonomous vehicles are likely to be named as defendants in instances where vehicles, not humans, are likely the causes of crashes.
Recent incidents are shaping the issues of fault related to self-driving vehicles. In March 2018, an Uber vehicle operated in autonomous mode killed a pedestrian. In December in 2017 a motorcyclist crashed into a Chevrolet Bolt being driven in self-driving mode.
Both of these cases have raised questions about fault for autonomous vehicle crashes. They also raise issues regarding safety standards.
Not surprisingly, self-driving car manufacturers are seeking government regulation and are urging lawmakers to create policies that grant them immunity in accidents and shield them from fault.
What Causes Self-Driving Cars to Crash?
More often than not, the root cause of a self-driving car crash is not autonomous technology. Rather, human error is the cause. This is not to say that the autonomous technology is fail-proof. It is not. The technology can fail and often has trouble with complex decision-making that, arguably, only the human mind is capable of.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2019, more than 36,000 people were killed as a result of a motor vehicle crashes. It is fair to say that a good portion of these fatalities were the result of some form of human error. However, it is also fair to say that product failure led to a significant portion of these deaths — airbags failed to deploy, brakes did not engage, and fuel tanks were designed poorly.
In order to better understand how self-driving cars work, it is important to explore the different levels of autonomous technology, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). This is an organization that provides the who, what, and when surrounding ever-evolving self-driving technology.
- Level 1: Driver Assistance. Example: cruise control.
- Level 2: Partial Automation. Example: vehicle can control speed and steering.
- Level 3: Conditional Automation. Example: vehicle can drive itself under certain conditions.
- Level 4: High Automation. Example: vehicle can complete entire journey start to finish.
- Level 5: Full Automation. Example: driverless cars.
When autonomous technology fails, the product itself fails. Since we are only operating in Level 3 or conditional automation at this point, there is still very much a human component involved in how self-driving cars currently operate.
In the previously referenced example of the 2018 Uber crash, it was argued that the human driver — who was not paying attention at the time of the crash — would not have been able to see the pedestrian in time to react. Actually, the Uber vehicle’s light detection and ranging system (LIDAR) was able to detect the pedestrian in enough time to stop. The problem was that Uber had disabled the vehicle’s automatic braking system. As a result, the vehicle did not stop.
Who Is at Fault When a Crash Involves a Self-Driving Vehicle?
When it comes to self-driving vehicles, fault is fickle. On one hand, self-driving technology is intended to reduce automobile crashes and make the roadways safer for all of us. On the other hand, technologies can fail. Moral dilemmas of complex decision-making will be tough to incorporate into this technology.
In a utopian society, the only way that a self-driving vehicle actually works is if all other vehicles are also self-driving. This is tough sell to the masses and may never actually become a reality.
Even if all vehicles became self-driving or fully autonomous, we would still run the real risk of infrastructure failure due to data breaches or sophisticated computer hacking efforts that could take control of roadways.
For now, fault is still in the eye of the beholder. In other words, juries have the opportunity to weigh these competing interests and the facts of loss to determine who was at fault for a crash involving a self-driving vehicle.
How Is a Self-Driving Vehicle Crash Different from a Normal Crash?
In most car crashes, fault is relatively clear-cut. Evidence usually tips the scales of justice one way of the other.
In a self-driving vehicle crash, vehicle data may need to be inspected carefully, to determine whether the vehicle, itself, violated the rules of the road or failed to respond as a reasonable person would have.
As is customary with a product defect claim, an analysis of the self-driving vehicle’s performance and prior testing may factor into a determination of fault.
Data experts — not crash experts — might have to be employed to crunch numbers and run modeling scenarios to find where a failure occurred. There may even need to be a balancing test between the subjectivity of safety overall and uniqueness of the crash itself.
Questions About Who Is at Fault in a Self-Driving Car Accident? Call Negretti & Associates
Self-driving vehicles crashes are complicated and uncertain. Remember, self-driving vehicle fault extends far beyond scenarios where human drivers and their passengers are hit by self-driving vehicles. In a situation where you were to engage the autonomous technology in your own vehicle and your vehicle causes a crash, you might have a claim against the maker of your vehicle’s automation technology.
If you ever find yourself in a crash involving a self-driving vehicle, and you are wondering who is at fault in a self-driving car accident, Negretti & Associates highly recommends that you give our firm a call for a free consultation. Call us at (602) 531-3911 in Arizona, (619) 777-3370 in California, or (720) 636-3444 in Colorado. You can also contact us online or send us a text.