Manufacturers are jumping on the self-driving car bandwagon left and right, and tech giant Google has been testing its version for several years. Both Tesla and Volvo announced their plans to develop fully autonomous cars last year, and Teslas are already available equipped with the first-generation Autopilot. Even Chevrolet invested in self-driving technology.
It seems that semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles are the wave of the future for automakers, but no one is certain how accident liability will work when there is no human driver behind the wheel.
Recent Self-Driving Accidents
A fatal accident in June raised a number of questions about liability after a crash involving a self-driving car, but there are still few answers. The fatal crash occurred in Florida, when a man driving a Tesla sedan equipped with Autopilot crashed into the side of a truck turning left in front of him. The man behind the wheel of the Tesla died, which prompted his family to file a wrongful death suit against the automaker.
Liability in this particular case is not as complicated as it will be with fully autonomous cars. According to Tesla, the Autopilot system may have failed to recognize the truck in the roadway because of its high ground clearance and light color. However, Tesla designed the Autopilot system to assist drivers, not to operate on its own. Drivers must keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times.
What issues will slow the introduction of self-driving cars?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and other traffic safety organizations believe self-driving cars can significantly reduce the number of crashes on the nation’s highways and interstates. In fact, NHTSA’s top executive, Mark Rosekind, told NBC News that replacing all traditional cars with autonomous vehicles could cut the number of accidents caused by human error by 94 percent.
However, there is a long way to go before we get there. As it stands right now, even the most advanced technology available to the public requires participation from the driver. Volvo’s semi-automated system, Pilot Assist, requires drivers keep their hands in contact with touch sensors on the steering wheel at all times. This means human error remains a factor.
In addition, only a small fraction of the cars on the road have this type of technology. It could be a decade or more before self-driving capabilities are available in all new vehicles sold.
Perhaps most important, though, is the need to address the legal ramifications of self-driving cars. Currently, human error causes most car crashes (94 percent, reports the NHTSA), and the driver who acted carelessly is liable for any damages they cause. When automated driving removes drivers from the equation, though, are they still responsible for crashes?
How could liability work with self-driving cars?
Repeatedly when discussing its Autopilot technology, Tesla reminds drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and remain prepared to take control of the driving if necessary. How much of this is necessary and how much of it is covering any potential liability is unclear, but it is one way to ensure the driver — not the manufacturer — holds the ultimate control over when a crash occurs.
Once the technology develops to deploy fully autonomous vehicles in mass quantities, however, this type of warning may not be enough to protect manufacturers. Once automation replaces the human driver, holding that driver legally liable becomes much more difficult. Some see it as inevitable that car accident liability eventually lands with the programmer, manufacturer, or dealer who built or sold the car.
When Volvo announced the introduction of a fully autonomous car as a part of its 2020 line, the company also agreed to accept any liability in a crash caused by its forthcoming IntelliSafe Autopilot system. This is the first action of this kind from a car manufacturer, but is not likely to be the last.
How could this change auto insurance?
If drivers who own fully autonomous cars are not liable for injuries sustained in accidents with these vehicles, will states need to alter their auto insurance laws accordingly?
At the very least, the reduction in accidents could drop the price of auto insurance across the board. Of course, that’s the long-term outlook. In the short term, motorists who invest in cars with early self-driving systems may pay more because of all the unknowns.
About the Law Offices of Dianne Sawaya, LLC
The Law Offices of Dianne Sawaya, LLC offers smart, aggressive, and compassionate representation to Denver car accident victims. If you suffered injuries in a Denver car accident caused by another driver, call us today at 303-758-4777 to learn more about your options for compensation.