Who’s Liable When an Autonomous Car Crashes?

With the rise of interest in self-driving cars, two questions commonly comes up – Are they actually safer, and who is liable if a self-driving car crashes?

In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Administration released a 6-level classification system for autonomous cars. Level 0, the lowest level, means the automated system may issue warnings to the driver, but the driver is completely in control of the vehicle. Level 5, the highest level, means that no human interaction is required – the vehicle completely drives itself.

At anything lower than a level 3 autonomous vehicle, the level at which a driver can safely focus their attention on tasks other than driving, a driver is responsible since they clearly need to interact with the car in order to prevent accidents. At level 2, it is required that a driver keep their hands on the wheel and must be ready to intervene should something go amiss with the automated system.

On March 18, a pedestrian in Arizona was killed when she was struck by an autonomous car.  Although it was simply a test run, the car, which was operated by UBER, had an emergency driver in the car.  The victim was walking with her bicycle, and it appeared that the car did not slow down at all prior to striking her.  She was struck at 40 mph.

Later that week, on March 23, a Tesla autonomous vehicle – this one operated by Tesla – slammed into a concrete lane divider on the highway and burst into flames. The driver later died from his injuries.  The driver in the Tesla was repeatedly told by the car’s system that his hands needed to be on the wheel even though the car was on auto-pilot.  In this case, even though auto-pilot was in, the vehicle did state to the driver that auto-pilot is just a driver assistance tool – it is not meant to take the place of an actual driver, and takes care to note that the driver is responsible for their own safety and the safety of others.

Currently, laws have not been able to keep up with technology, and technology has not yet advanced to the stage where level four or level 5 autonomous cars should be on public roads. It is expected that as cars move towards being more and more autonomous, eventually, liability will shift from the driver to the car/its manufacturer.  Autonomous cars in the future may even be programmed not to commit certain traffic offenses, such as speeding, traffic violations, etc. This would mean that autonomous cars might even be the safest option for vehicles in the future – as studies have shown, the vast majority of crashes occur because of human error.

The law firm of Colucci, Colucci, Marcus & Flavin, P.C. has been recognized by Newsweek.com as one of the Top 10 Best Law Firms for Personal Injury in the Country. Attorney Darin Colucci has also been recognized by Newsweek.com for 3 consecutive years as one of the Top 10 Best Personal Injury Attorneys in the Country.