Determining Fault for an Accident Involving a Driverless Car

inside-of-self-driving-car-blue-graphicsAmericans are largely in favor of having access to more autonomous vehicles. A national study by AAA found that 60 percent of the public wanted more autonomous features in their next vehicle.

However, 54 percent of survey respondents reported feeling less secure about the thought of self-driving cars on the road, despite enhanced safety features in these vehicles.

What they may not know is that determining liability for accidents involving driverless cars could be very complicated.

If you are ever involved in an accident with a driverless vehicle, a knowledgeable Savannah car accident lawyer at Roden Law may be able to help you determine if you have a case for compensation, including determining who may be liable for the crash.

Driverless Car Accidents

In 2016, a Florida driver was behind the wheel in autopilot mode when his Tesla Model S crashed into a tractor trailer that was illegally crossing the highway. This was the first fatality involving a Tesla Model S with the autopilot active.

Two years later, a self-driving car operated by Uber ran over a 49-year-old pedestrian at 40 mph.

Levels of Automation

One key factor in determining liability in driverless car accidents is the level of the vehicle’s automation at the time of crash. The driver is more likely to be held responsible when the vehicle had a low level of automation.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Society of Automotive Engineers have developed a scale that consists of six levels to describe vehicle automation:

  • Level 0 – No automation – This includes basic features only, such as cruise control.
  • Level 1 – Driver assistance – Many vehicles offer Level 1 automation, such as adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist by using radars or cameras. 
  • Level 2 – Partial automation – This level of automation assists the vehicle in controlling speed and steering, but the driver must keep his or her hands on the wheel. This automation helps assist drivers in slow-moving traffic and keeps the car centered in the lane. This level is included in Tesla’s Autopilot feature, Audi’s Traffic Jam Assist and Volvo’s Pilot Assist.
  • Level 3 – Conditional automation – Vehicles with Level 3 automation can drive themselves, but only under certain pre-determined conditions. Drivers must still be behind the wheel and be able to take over at a moment’s notice.
  • Level 4 – High automation – These vehicles can drive themselves without human interaction but are restricted to known uses and can drive in most environments and under most road conditions.
  • Level 5 – Full automation – This is when autonomous vehicles are truly driverless. Vehicles at this level can drive through all road conditions without any human intervention. We may be many years away from seeing these kinds of vehicles on the road.

Is the Car or Driver Responsible?

Most autonomous vehicles you see on the road these days are at level two or lower. Drivers behind the wheel of these vehicles are generally liable for accidents if they were negligent. These vehicles require drivers to stay fully attentive and ready to alter speed or steering.

The current legal infrastructure states that humans cannot delegate their responsibility to a machine to drive safely.  

However, as vehicles become more autonomous, car accident claims involving driverless cars may turn into product liability actions. Under this legal theory, manufacturers may be held responsible if their product is defective or dangerous. If a car is manufactured and marketed to be truly driverless and fails to perform as such, the manufacturer may be held responsible for the resulting injuries.

Under this legal theory, various parties may be potentially liable for the accident, such as the:

  • Manufacturer of the car
  • Designer of the software
  • Fleet owner
  • Manufacturer of the vehicle’s components

What Caused the Accident?

It is also important to consider what caused the accident. If the accident was caused by a factor unrelated to the autonomous driving, it is likely the fault of the driver. However, if the accident was caused because a sensor was defective, the manufacturer or maintenance company could be held liable.

Many autonomous vehicles maintain a variety of electronic data, so it may become easier to determine how accidents occurred.