The honest response to the question of liability in self-driving-car accidents is that the answer is a work in progress. As with any new technology, situations arise for which there is no legal precedent, and savvy lawyers must work to stay on top of technological trends and how the law could apply to them.
As the technology for self-driving cars has rapidly evolved, there have been accidents, including two involving Tesla Motors’ semi-autonomous Model S sedan driven by private owners and more than 10 with Google’s self-driving vehicles in pilot programs on public roads:
- As of January, Google had reported 14 accidents involving its test fleet, 13 of which it says were the other drivers’ fault. The only crash with injuries happened in July 2015 when three Google employees were hurt. This answers at least one question: Do self-driving cars cause accidents? At least one so far, Google says.
- The driver of a Tesla Model S died in May 2016 when the sedan hit a tractor-trailer in Florida. The semi-autonomous vehicle’s Autopilot system was engaged but did not “see” the truck or alert the driver. The Model S didn’t brake before hitting the truck. Meanwhile, the relatives of a man killed in China when a Model S hit a truck in January 2016 reportedly are suing the automaker, alleging that the Autopilot system was defective. Tesla says damage to that vehicle was so severe that it could not be determined whether the Autopilot was engaged.
Does Buying a Self-Driving Car Make You Liable in Missouri?
Tesla has argued that it is not at fault in the fatal Model S crash in China because there is no evidence that Autopilot was engaged. Additionally, it said during a hearing, the driver was at fault because the Model S only is designed to assist, making the human responsible for the vehicle at all times.
That is a technical point on language. “Semi-autonomous” is the label for driver-assist vehicles, and “autonomous” is the language applied to Google’s self-driving fleet. The federal government favors the term “highly automated vehicles’’ over “autonomous,” and it refers to them as HAVs.
When skilled attorneys take a conventional auto accident case to court, they single out whoever or whatever was at fault, using necessary resources to identify and find evidence to support legal arguments. The target can be the other driver or drivers, the manufacturer of a part or vehicle that fails, the entity responsible for a road condition that caused the crash, or a combination of these.
Since there is little legal precedent to govern the approach to litigating vehicle accidents with auto-drive cars, it’s safe to assume the old-fashioned approach will serve until there are enough cases on the books to establish liability procedures in cases where a car was driving itself.
What is known is that when a self-driving car accident in St. Louis or the surrounding area needs to be handled, the tech-savvy personal injury lawyers at The Bruning Law Firm will be ready. We bring years of experience and an understanding of evolving technology to the table in every case we handle.
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Are Makers of Self-Driving Cars Ultimately Liable?
For most lawmakers, self-driving cars are unexplored territory. Twenty states introduced legislation on self-driving cars in 2016, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. By Jan. 1, eight states and the District of Columbia had related laws on the books and two states had enacted legislative orders affecting HAVs. Missouri had nothing on the books.
There hasn’t been much heard from the states, but the analysis and research experts at the Rand Corp. have weighed in. Rand indicates that:
“Manufacturer liability is likely to increase while personal liability is likely to decrease. If a vehicle and a human share driving responsibility, the insurance issues could become more complicated.”
Since the self-driving technology being used by the public is semi-autonomous, those insurance complications have arrived ─ as the case of the Tesla fatality in China is showing, with Tesla battling to shift the financial burden to the dead driver’s family and his insurance company.
Tesla’s China case and the self-driving car liability issue are tackled in a Forbes opinion piece by Omri Ben-Shahar, a University of Chicago law professor. He says the China lawsuit is on shaky ground because Tesla requires buyers of cars using the Autopilot system to sign off on a commitment to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times.
However, he does begrudgingly conclude that lawmakers are likely to make carmakers take the blame in HAV cases:
“Requiring carmakers to compensate victims of driverless accidents may be the inevitable legal solution, but it also seems paradoxical. Self-driving cars are unquestionably safer, why should their makers have to bear greater liability than makers of ordinary driver-controlled cars?”
He uses an oft-cited statistic to make his case that roads populated with HAVs would be much safer: Data show that human error is a factor in about 95 percent of crashes. Remove driver error, Ben-Shahar says, and the mortality rate on U.S. road would be a fraction of the 30,000-plus annual average, saving thousands of lives and millions of dollars.
The Bruning Law Firm Is Here to Help After a MO Car Accident
It doesn’t matter if the car involved in the accident that hurt you was driving itself or in the hands of a negligent driver, The Bruning Law Firm is here to help. Contact us today to schedule a free case evaluation, and let us start fighting for the compensation you deserve.