Autonomous Vehicles in Accidents: Who is Responsible?

From 2014 to 2016 I was able to spend a little time in the Bay Area of California. Being the tech capital of the world, the Bay Area is home to many unique inventions that are absolutely fascinating. Of these inventions, the autonomous vehicles interested me most. I saw Google cars with all sorts of sensors and cameras blanketing the vehicle, gathering and collecting data regarding autonomous transportation; I saw many driverless Tesla’s in the introductory stages of autonomy flooding the roads. All these autonomous vehicles made me wonder who would be responsible if there was an accident involving an autonomous vehicle?

Today, only .1 percent of cars on the road have the technology to be completely autonomous. By 2020 there will be a significant number of these vehicles on the road, and by 2040, almost 95 percent of vehicles sold or 96.3 billion cars will have reached this milestone. Many people believe that having more and more of these vehicles on the road will decrease the number of accidents and make life safer. But we also know that, unfortunately, accidents will still happen.

There have already been accidents involving these vehicles. In 2016 a gentleman died when his autonomous vehicle crashed into the trailer of a semi-truck. The vehicle drove on auto-pilot mode as it attempted to pass under the trailer of the semi. The driver was watching a movie at the time of this tragic event, thinking he was free to not watch his car and traffic. Another accident occurred when the partially autonomous Model S Tesla collided into the rear of a fire engine.

How will the law adjust to autonomous vehicles?

According to U.S. Attorney Andrew Garza, future liability cases are likely to be handled the same as today.  Even if these accidents involve autonomous cars, existing product liability regulations will be in effect. Garza goes on to explain that there could be a learning curve starting out. Then the liability framework that currently exists will likely be sufficient.

Others agree. According to Jacob Fuest, an automotive expert at Allianz, if the driver of an autonomous vehicle happens to strike an innocent vehicle, the driver initially would be held liable for the damages cause by his car. Fuest claims the basic legal principle of strict liability will apply. If the person driving the autonomous car is not at fault, insurances companies will then approach manufactures to seek recovery for its advanced payments. Likewise, they will also handle property damage the same way.

We all hope that the number of accidents decrease as more and better autonomous vehicles hit the road. But it is unlikely that they will totally eliminate accidents altogether. If you or a loved one are in an accident, talk to an attorney you can trust to help you.

By: Calder Larsen