Implications of Self-Driving Car Accidents

Most major automakers are developing or testing autonomous vehicles, and self-driving cars and trucks are already on the road in the US. Some sources report that self-driving vehicles are being used or tested in as many as 36 states.

Although most states have legislation in place defining autonomous vehicles and regulating their (sometimes strictly limited) use, the law has not fully reckoned with the liability issues that arise when a self-driving car gets into an accident.

Manufacturers have reported many crashes involving these vehicles, some causing injuries and death. However, to date the manufacturers seem to have settled liability issues privately with the accident victims or their families. The way the courts will resolve liability issues in wrecks involving autonomous vehicles remains murky.

Who Is at Fault in a Crash with an Autonomous Vehicle?

Autonomous vehicles are another example of technology moving faster than the law, which could lead to uncertain outcomes for people who suffer injuries in crashes involving these vehicles. The laws state legislatures implement over the next few years will have a fundamental impact on the rights of injured people.

In many states, the insurance company for the at-fault driver of a non-autonomous vehicle is liable for the damages of anyone who suffers losses in a crash. If a car is driving itself, could it be at fault in an accident? Is the software making the moment-by-moment decisions, and if so, is the software the driver? Is it fair to blame the human in the driver’s seat if the software, or the sensors providing information to the software, made a flawed conclusion that led to a crash? The law is still developing on these issues. In many states, the legislatures and courts have not considered them.

Most states also have some form of comparative negligence, a doctrine that allows negligent parties to claim reduced damages from other negligent parties involved in an accident. In an autonomous vehicle crash, how could an insurance adjuster, or a jury, decide what percentage of blame lies with the human and how much with the car?

Product Liability and Autonomous Vehicles

If a manufacturer sells a defective product that causes an injury, the manufacturer could be strictly liable to the injured person. The injured person need not prove the manufacturer negligent. They need to show only that the product was defective in its design, manufacture, or marketing.

Although not requiring proof of the defendant’s intent seems to make a plaintiff’s burden easier, if a product involves sophisticated technology, proving the technology was defective is often a challenging and expensive task. An injured person needs to present evidence showing that another design would have been just as efficient and less dangerous or that a specific manufacturing error led to the problem that caused the accident.

Design and manufacturing flaws in autonomous vehicles will lead to accidents causing injuries and death. Attorneys, the judiciary, and the legislatures need to consider whether current product liability laws are adequate to provide redress to people who suffer severe losses in autonomous vehicle crashes.

Self-Driving Cars Will Impact the Insurance Industry

One of the benefits proponents of autonomous vehicles tout is increased safety, as the vehicles can recognize and correct for multiple road hazards that cause collisions. If the increasing use of autonomous vehicles does lead to an overall reduction in accidents, insurance rates for liability coverage might go down.

As experience with autonomous vehicles increases, insurers might learn that certain features in these cars and trucks reduce the threat of crashes more effectively and offer discounts to drivers who purchase vehicles with these features. On the other hand, some vehicles might develop problematic safety records, and insurance rates could adjust accordingly.

A new insurance system might emerge in which driver skill and experience are less important than the vehicle’s capacity to spot and immediately respond to hazards. It remains unclear how the industry will change, but change seems inevitable.

There Is No Clear Roadmap for Autonomous Vehicle Liability Issues

As autonomous vehicles become more readily available, consumers should pay attention to developments in the law regarding liability in crashes. Manufacturers are lobbying for liability protections which could reduce an injured person’s ability to collect appropriate damages after a wreck.

If you suffered an injury involving a self-driving car or any kind of vehicle collision, a personal injury attorney could explain your available legal options. Call today to get a strong advocate fighting for you.