Who is Liable in a Self-Driving Car Accident?

A serious personal injury-producing car accident is a traumatic experience – along with managing painful injuries and dealing with a potentially life-threatening situation, things can get even more complicated if you’ve been in a collision with a self-driving vehicle. Who’s at fault, and who is the one responsible for fair financial compensation and recovery of lost wages?

At Walkup, Melodia, Kelly, & Schoenberger, we have a legal team that has been studying this developing issue for the past few years and can answer all those questions for you. Our lawyers have comprehensively studied self-driving car issues, and as a law firm they have been in business for 60 years representing the injured victims of automobile injuries of all types , ensuring that we stay up to date with the newest developments and laws surrounding automotive collisions and autonomous vehicles.

Who is Currently Liable in a Self-Driving Car Accident?

Although there aren’t any fully autonomous vehicles on the market today, a surprising amount of new vehicles come with some form of driver assistance system that falls under one of the six levels of automobile automation standards formulated by SAE International:

  • Level 0 – No Automation: a fully human-operated vehicle.
  • Level 1 – Driver Assistance: a driver assistance system that requires a human driver to do the majority of the driving.
  • Level 2 – Partial Automation: more than one driver assistance system that allows for more automation, but still requires a human driver for the remaining functions.
  • Level 3 – Conditional Automation: an automated driving system that’s fully self-driving, but periodically requires human intervention for course correction.
  • Level 4 – High Automation: a fully automated driving system that solves problems without the need of a human driver.
  • Level 5 – Full Automation: a fully automated vehicle with no pedals, wheels, or controls necessary for human drivers.

Currently, all street-legal vehicles with varying degrees of autonomous capability require some sort of human control during operation – and as such, in a collision, responsibility currently lies solely with the driver.  But all that is changing very rapidly.

Car manufacturers and technology companies who want to get into the autonomous car business, are presently operating under rules and traffic laws that require , before using autonomous functions, vehicles prominently display a disclaimer on the dashboard or heads-up display, stating that drivers must be attentive to road hazards and drivers must keep their hands on the wheel. This disclaimer seeks to shift responsibility from the automobile manufacturer to the driver in the case of a collision due to these self-driving features.

To stress even further the requirement the drivers keep their hands on the wheel, some vehicles disable certain features unless it is apparent that you’re in the driver’s seat. For example, certain vehicles with auto-steer capability have sensors on the wheel, requiring the driver to keep their hands on the wheel – and in a specific case, Tesla vehicles require you to click your seat belt to enable the Autopilot system.

Because a driver must take these actions to voluntarily enable these features, that driver is responsible for any and all damages and compensation that may result from an automobile collision.

Liability in the Future

As self-driving vehicles become more autonomous, the question of liability will evolve to expose automakers to greater liability. But is that a good thing for the average consumer? Changing the playing field from one where claims are litigated between drivers to one where injured persons must litigate against giant corporations, automakers or technology companies is fraught with complications.

As fully autonomous vehicles enter the market, the entire concept of automobile liability insurance will change as the liability will shift from drivers and humans to the automobile manufacturers and software developers. Michigan is already the first state to introduce legislation regarding liability. They state that if a self-driving vehicle is in a collision and the operating system is found to be at fault, the manufacturer is liable for all damages. But saying that the manufacturer is liable for damages and proving it in a court of law are two very different things.

Automaker Volvo has also had similar sentiments, stating that when their fully autonomous system rolls out in vehicles in 2020, they will pay for any injuries or property damage caused by the vehicle. Their mentality is that the system has so many safeguards and backups that a human driver will never need to intervene – and thus, never be at fault.

The problem for faultless injured consumers is that there is the potential for an uncomplicated liability claim to evolve into a full-fledged product liability lawsuit – opening the door to a number of situations with complex liability questions. For example, an accident between an autonomous vehicle and a driver-operated automobile brings up a number of questions:

  • If the autonomous vehicle is at fault, is a lawsuit the only course of action?
  • If a lawsuit is filed, how could the driver definitively claim that there was a hardware or software failure?
  • How successful is a lawsuit against a major automobile manufacturer such as Volvo or Tesla?
  • If the autonomous vehicle is at fault, who is involved in the lawsuit – the driver in the “manual” vehicle, or both drivers?
  • If the manual driver is at fault, does the autonomous vehicle driver file a claim for liability?
  • How does auto insurance factor into an accident with an autonomous vehicle?

All of these questions require a legal team with engineering and technical savvy and the financial resources to litigate against big companies, pay for the necessary experts, and understand the subtleties of auto litigation and product liability litigation.

Experienced Car Accident Attorneys at Your Side

When the time comes, navigating through the liability issues and questions of a self-driving car accident will be a messy process. Leave that up to the automobile personal injury legal team at Walkup, Melodia, Kelly, & Schoenberger.

We have a legal team that understands that self-driving car accidents are a complex mix of product liability issues (hardware and software defects, and other technological and product design issues) and traditional auto accident elements (driver error, reaction time, stopping distance, accident reconstruction). We have more than 60 years of combined experience in recovering financial compensation and pain and suffering damages for anyone who’s been in a serious car accident.

If you’ve already been a victim of a self-driving accident, we can help. Call us at (415) 889-2919 for a free consultation and evaluation of your case.


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