Who Is Liable in a Self-Driving Car Accident?

self driving car

A recent fatal pedestrian accident in Arizona involving an Uber vehicle operating on auto-pilot has raised questions about the readiness of self-driving technology for use on public streets. It also has revived the public discussion about legal liability in crashes involving self-driving or autonomous vehicles. Can victims of self-driving car accidents receive compensation for their injuries?

As with other types of motor vehicle accidents, the liability in a self-driving car accident depends on how the accident occurred and whether others contributed to the accident. Whether an accident victim has a legal right to file a personal injury lawsuit after a self-driving car accident depends on the circumstances.

Numerous companies including Tesla, Google, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and Uber are working to develop fully autonomous cars. Self-driving cars are evolving technology and the law is evolving to adapt to technological changes.

Uber Fatality Accident

In March, an Uber car operating on auto-pilot struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, who was pushing a bicycle across the street at night outside of a crosswalk in Tempe, Arizona. The video footage from the Uber car shows that the backup Uber driver sitting in the driver’s seat was not looking at the road when the Volvo SUV operating in auto-pilot mode failed to react to the sudden appearance of Herzberg in the road before the collision occurred.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are both investigating the accident.

Less than two weeks after the March 18 accident, the family of Herzberg reached a settlement with Uber Technology. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.  But the settlement appears to have avoided for the time being the liability issues raised with autonomous car accidents.

Questions Raised by Autonomous Car Accidents

Among the legal questions that a self-driving car accident may raise are:

  • Who had ultimate responsibility, the self-driving car technology or the backup driver?
  • Could the backup human driver have taken action to avoid the accident?
  • Was the manufacturer of the semiconductor chip used in self-driving technology negligent in the design or testing of the technology?
  • Was there a design or manufacturing defect in the auto-pilot technology that should have been detected by the developer?
  • Was a state or local government agency at fault for allowing testing of experimental self-driving on public roads?

An experienced injury attorney will consider all of these questions and others as well when investigating a crash and seeking to determine who to hold accountable after a self-driving car accident.

In some cases, auto-pilot technology is intended to aid rather than replace a human driver who is still ultimately responsible. Many newer vehicles have some high-tech crash avoidance and lane detection features that assist drivers. In those cases, if the driver fails to respond appropriately, the driver may be responsible. The more control a driver has over a self-driving vehicle, the more likely the driver and the insurance carrier may be liable unless the technology is found to be defective.

Accidents involving self-driving vehicles and semi-autonomous vehicles raise numerous legal questions and each accident has unique factors. Complicated accidents that cause serious injuries require the involvement of a knowledgeable personal injury attorney who has experience handling complicated cases involving contested liability. It’s reasonable to expect that self-driving car manufacturers will dispute that they have liability in many situations.

After the fatal accident, Uber called an indefinite halt to its testing program in North America, and both Arizona and California withdrew authorization for Uber to test autonomous cars in the states. Despite the recent setbacks, no one should expect that they have seen the last of self-driving vehicles. Manufacturers are still working to develop self-driving vehicles and improve their safety. Waymo, a division of the Google parent Alphabet, is continuing to test its self-driving vehicles in Arizona, for example.

In 2017, New Mexico lawmakers passed legislation directing the New Mexico Department of Transportation to study self-driving car technology and propose a plan to allow self-driving cars in the state. The idea is that self-driving cars will reduce car crashes, most of which are caused by human error such as distracted driving.

If most of the cars on the road in the future are self-driving vehicles, it may mean a shift in liability more to vehicle manufacturers. Why would an individual need auto insurance if he or she no longer drove? But the day when most vehicles on the road are driverless is still some years in the future, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In the meantime, the liability in each car accident will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Understanding Your Legal Options After a Serious Car Accident

If you have been seriously injured in a car accident that involves a traditional vehicle or some form of self-driving vehicle, you deserve aggressive and experienced legal representation to hold accountable the at-fault party. Bert Parnall and the legal team at Parnall Law Firm have the hands-on experience and resources to tackle even the most complicated car crash cases involving high technology auto accidents.

Insurance companies will not pay a fair settlement unless they recognize that will face litigation if they fail to do what is right. Insurers want you to believe that you have no options or that you should accept whatever they offer you. That is wrong. You always have the option of having a knowledgeable attorney at Parnall Law review the details of your accident free of charge and explaining your legal rights.