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When self-driving cars cause accidents, who is liable?

If one is to believe the media, self-driving cars aren't a matter of if; they are a matter of when. In recent years, domestic and foreign automakers, transportation companies like Uber and Lyft, and even technology companies like Google have invested many millions in self-driving technology. While self-driving technology seems inevitable to many, there are still many questions on how self-driving vehicles would fit into American roads and highways.

Automakers, the government, insurance companies and other entities must be ready to answer many questions. The most important of these questions is: Who is responsible when a self-driving car causes an accident? There needs to be clear laws as to liability before self-driving cars become a common part of our roads.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), roughly 94 percent of motor vehicle accidents are caused by driver error. If self-driving cars operate in the way their makers intend, car accident injuries and deaths would drop dramatically. On the other hand, when accidents happen, the responsible party must be held liable for the victims' medical expenses, lost income, pain and suffering and other damages.

Automakers will be one party to bear responsibility for most self-driving vehicle accidents

In most auto accident lawsuits, the injured party has the right to bring a lawsuit against the party who acted negligently. This is typically the driver who caused the accident. If self-driving cars become the norm, that liability may well fall more on the automaker and all the manufacturers of its parts, including computer software. There undoubtedly are numerous suppliers of component parts that contribute to the self- driving capability of these vehicles. Those suppliers, along with entities involved in the testing of these vehicles, should also be held responsible. The designers and programmers of the computer software, who may not be employees of the manufacturer, play a major role in the autonomous operation of these vehicles, so they too have responsibility for collisions and injuries resulting from collisions. The providers of inadequate maintenance and servicing of the vehicle also may bear liability for a crash. While some automakers, such as Volvo, have acknowledged that it would be liable in the event of an accident caused by its self-driving vehicles, other automakers are less clear.

On the other hand, the automaker Tesla will begin selling self-driving technology with every new vehicle. Its CEO, Elon Musk, has stated publicly that he did not believe that Tesla would not be liable for accidents that take place when its vehicles are driving autonomously. It is possible that Musk is referring only to current Tesla models, which are not fully autonomous and require that drivers keep both hands on the wheel at all times, even when a car is in self-driving mode. Should Tesla create a fleet of fully self-driving vehicles, it will be interesting to see how the courts handle liability for any accidents that result due to defects. Tesla self-driving vehicles already have been involved in several auto crashes, including fatal ones.

Above all, it is important to move cautiously

Self-driving vehicles could be a bigger technological advance than smartphones, the internet and television. In fact, self-driving cars could arguably be the biggest technological advance since the invention of cars. In light of the momentous technological, economical and cultural shifts these vehicles could bring, it is critical for automakers, lawmakers and others to act carefully and judiciously.

For decades, when tragedies occur, individuals and families across the Chicagoland area and beyond have relied on Clifford Law Offices. Our team provides exceptional representation in all types of accident cases, including car accidents, product liability claims, and more.

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