The United States is at a strange moment in the development of self-driving cars. Autonomous vehicles still seem futuristic and speculative, yet we’re already sharing the road with a small number of them. Everyone from manufacturers to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says autonomous vehicles will be safer, yet a significant percentage of Americans say they wouldn’t ride in one. Various studies project how much time a self-driving car could buy back for a commuter, or even suggest that autonomous vehicles will help with America’s chronic sleep deprivation problem. Yet, Tesla’s website says “While using Autopilot, it is your responsibility to stay alert, keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times and maintain control of your car.”
It remains to be seen how popular self-driving vehicles will become and how quickly they’ll become readily available and accepted. But, we do know that self-driving automobiles do sometimes crash, and that those crashes are sometimes fatal. When that happens, who is legally responsible?
Responsibility for Damages after an Autonomous Vehicle Accident
Liability for a self-driving car accident is like liability for any other motor vehicle accident in one important way: it must be determined on a case-by-case basis. And, it may well turn out that responsibility is shared.
A big selling point for self-driving cars has been data showing that the vast majority of motor vehicle collisions are caused by human error. But, it turns out it’s a bit of a leap from there to the idea that self-driving cars can eliminate most of those errors. Though data is still limited, it appears so far that human error contributes to most autonomous car accidents. From a liability standpoint, that can be messy.
The first known self-driving car accident fatality occurred in 2018, when a self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian who was wheeling a bicycle. There was a problem with the technology. First, the vehicle misinterpreted the pedestrian as a fixed object. 1.2 seconds before the collision, the vehicle identified the bicycle. By then, it was too late to stop.
But, the failure of the sensors wasn’t the only problem. The pedestrian was jaywalking, and the vehicle’s system wasn’t designed to take that into account. So, the system failed to correctly predict her trajectory. That’s a pretty big design flaw. But, it’s likely also negligence on the part of the pedestrian, who was illegally crossing the street in an unsafe location.
Potentially, at this point, there’s a product liability claim relating to the vehicle failures, and some contributory negligence on the part of the victim. But, there’s more. The Uber vehicle had a back-up driver–a human whose job was to take over if something exactly like this happened. But, the driver’s eyes weren’t on the road. It was later reported that police had used in-car camera footage and cell phone data to determine that the driver had been watching The Voice on her phone at the time of the accident. She has since been charged with negligent homicide. And, Uber had deactivated the car’s automatic emergency braking system.
One day, self-driving cars may operate without a back-up driver, and the liability equation will shift. For now, though, this type of potentially shared liability will likely be common. This is just one example of a situation in which the accident could likely have been avoided if either the system or the human operator had functioned properly.
The State of Self-Driving Cars
Uber got out of the self-driving car business, after investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the project. But, the operation has been turned over to a tech company that will continue to work on development. Waymo–which grew out of Google’s early autonomous vehicle exploration–says its vehicles have driven millions of miles in traffic. In the fall, Waymo removed back-up drivers from some vehicles providing rides to the public. And, a small number of Teslas with “full self-driving capability” are currently on the road.
In other words, the future is here. Self-driving cars, with all of the associated risks and benefits, are part of our reality as drivers, motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians. In the coming months–and perhaps years–litigation involving autonomous vehicle accidents is likely to be complex and hotly contested. If you’ve been injured or lost a loved one to a self-driving car accident, it’s in your best interest to talk with an experienced Atlanta car accident lawyer as soon as possible.
Atlanta attorney ReShea Balams fights for maximum compensation for people who have been injured through someone else’s negligence, including victims of car accidents, truck accidents, and pedestrians and bicyclists who have been hit by cars. The Balams Firm offers free, no-obligation consultations so injury victims can gather the information they need to make good decisions in difficult times. You can schedule yours right now by calling 855-352-2727 or filling out the contact form on this page.