Liability in a World of Driverless Cars

When an accident occurs, many drivers will move their vehicle to a safe place on the side of the road, if the vehicle can be moved.[1] Drivers might call the police and exchange information with the other driver.  But what happens when the other vehicle does not have a driver?

Google launched its self-driving car project in 2009, hoping that their prototype car could help make roads safer and easier to navigate.[2]  Since then, autonomous cars have driven over 1,158,818 miles.[3]  Currently, Google has 28 self-driving cars on the road.[4]  To see the Google car on the road, click here.

“In the six years of our project, we’ve been involved in 16 minor accidents during more than 2 million miles of autonomous and manual driving combined.  Not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident.” [5]

If the owner of the driverless car is a passenger in an accident, then the exchange of information process will be the same.  But what if the driverless car is just that, a car with no passengers?  In 2014, Google began manufacturing a fleet of driverless cars that are designed to be summoned by a cellphone and take passengers to a predetermined destination.[6]

This new technology gives rise to some important questions.  Who should be held responsible for the actions of the driverless car?  The vehicle’s owner?  Manufacturer?  The company who made and installed the software? The company or person responsible for ensuring the software on the car is updated? Can a driverless car be insured?  Can a driverless car get a citation?

What’s Being Done?

Unlike Google, which has removed any control a “driver” may have while seated in the car in several of its prototypes, Tesla has designed a vehicle that has automation but requires a driver to be behind the wheel.[7]  In the Tesla Model S sedan, the driver (an actual person) checks the surrounding area and then hits the turn signal. The car then automatically completes the turn.[8]

Several states are putting regulatory safeguards in place.  In Michigan, drivers of autonomous vehicles must remain in the driver’s seat at all times to enact a manual override in emergency situations.[9]  The Association of California Insurance Companies is advocating that liability remain with the vehicle’s manufacturer for all damages, losses or injuries caused by the operation of self-driving cars.[10]

As it stands, the U.S. Department of Transportation is allowing states to enact their own laws about testing self-driving cars, but not selling them.[11]  In the United Kingdom, fault remains with the driver/owner of the car, and the insurance company has a right of subrogation against the manufacturer.[12]

These issues remain at large for now.  As driverless cars become more prevalent on our roads, the questions about insurance and liability will need to be resolved.  It is perhaps fortunate that automated vehicles are not predicted to take over the roads until 2050[13], although some automakers predict that they will be commercially available within five years.[14] This allows automakers, legislators, insurance companies and consumers much needed time to consider how to balance automation, safety and accountability.

Accidents

Recently, a Google driverless car was involved in a motor vehicle accident with a municipal bus in California. After investigating the accident, Google accepted partial responsibility and admitted that its cars needed to be reprogramed to better deal with real life scenarios that human drivers face on a daily basis.

After the accident, Google released a statement: “In this case, we clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved there wouldn’t have been a collision. . . .  From now on, our cars will more deeply understand that buses (and other large vehicles) are less likely to yield to us than other types of vehicles, and we hope to handle situations like this more gracefully in the future.”

This collision shows that driverless car technology is not perfect. As this technology becomes increasingly commonplace, questions mount about who will be responsible when a driverless car causes a crash, or, even worse, a crash with injuries.

About The Author: Jason Konvicka is a partner and trial attorney with Allen & Allen in Richmond, Virginia. During his 20+ year career, he has achieved numerous record-setting jury verdicts and substantial settlements on behalf of his clients. His practice focuses on medical malpractice, bus accidents and product liability personal injury cases. Outside of the courtroom, Jason is involved with the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association and currently serves on its Board of Governors as Vice President.


[1] See generally  What Should I Do at the Accident Scene?, Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen, https://www.allenandallen.com/faqs-accident.html.

[2] See Google Self Driving Car Project: On the Road, Google, http://www.google.com/selfdrivingcar/where/.

[3] See Google Self-Driving Car Project: Monthly Report August 2015, Google (Aug. 2015), http://www.google.com/selfdrivingcar/reports/.

[4] See id.

[5] Id.

[6] See John Markoff, Google’s Next Phase in Driverless Cars: No Steering Wheel or Brake Pedals, N.Y. Times at B1 (May 28, 2015), available at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/28/technology/googles-next-phase-in-driverless-cars-no-brakes-or-steering-wheel.html.

[7] See Mike Ramsey, Who’s Responsible When a Driverless Car Crashes? Tesla’s Got an Idea, Wall St. J. (May 13, 2015, 11:58 AM), http://www.wsj.com/articles/tesla-electric-cars-soon-to-sport-autopilot-functions-such-as-passing-other-vehicles-1431532720.

[8] See id.

[9] See Self-Driving Cars, Insurance Information Institute (Feb. 2015), http://www.iii.org/issue-update/self-driving-cars-and-insurance.

[10] See id.

[11] See id.

[12] See Lloyd’s, Autonomous vehicles at 18-19, (2014), available at http://www.lloyds.com/.

[13] See supra note 10.

[14] See Nissan Speeds Ahead of Rivals With Plans for Driverless Car, http://www.wsj.com/articles/nissan-speeds-ahead-of-rivals-with-plans-for-autonomous-car-1446121737