When Google’s self-driving car abruptly changed lanes, put itself directly in the path of an oncoming bus, and caused a crash last year, it brought to light an important legal question – when a self-driving car is involved in an accident with another vehicle, who is liable?
A new report released this month by the American Association for Justice outlines the safety risks of driverless cars and recommends policies be put in place to ensure that the civil justice system, rather than regulators or the industry itself, will serve as the primary forum for holding autonomous car manufacturers liable for accidents involving driverless cars.
Accidents involving self-driving cars may be treated no differently than accidents involving two drivers, since modern vehicles already include an array of automated features operated by hardware, software, and/or mechanical connections, including:
• Adaptive cruise control
• Lane departure warnings
• Rearview cameras
• Brake assist
• Collision-avoidance systems
• Electronic stability control (ESC)
• Phone suppression technology
The goals of these systems is ultimately to allow drivers to decide when they want to control their vehicle and when they want to relax and let the automobile do the work, but automated systems can fail, and if any of them do, the party responsible for that failure will most likely be held legally responsible for a collision.
The same will likely be true when a driver is in autonomous mode, during which algorithms are making decisions regarding how an autonomous vehicle reacts in any given situation. If the algorithm makes a decision that is inconsistent with the applicable standard of care and causes an accident, liability could be found with the manufacturer, not the driver.
Self-driving technology may prove to be successful in improving automobile safety, but ironically, it might also relieve careless drivers of liability for collisions, instead forcing automakers to take greater responsibility.