A few years ago, self-driving cars moved from the realm of science fiction to science. Once they hit the road though, those self-propelled vehicles created a new problem for law enforcement and the court system. Who is at fault in a self-driving auto accident?
US Auto Accidents
In 2019, more than 36,000 individuals perished in motor vehicle accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). At this point, only a handful of the accidents occurring each year occur involve a self-driving vehicle. There aren’t that many of them on the road yet, and early accidents during testing phase of the technology brought immediate changes.
There still remain a handful of accidents though and determining fault can become far more complex than with an accident involving only human drivers. The at-fault party could be:
- the driver of any of the vehicles,
- the employer of any vehicle involved,
- a pedestrian involved,
- the self-driving vehicle, which puts at fault its manufacturer.
But it is not quite that simple. If the driver/passenger had engaged the self-driving vehicle option, the level of automation also weighs in the at-fault determination. Five levels of automation exist:
- driver assistance,
- partial automation,
- conditional automation,
- high automation,
- full automation.
Let’s look at the meaning of each of those terms to understand how fault might divide between the driver and the vehicle manufacturer in these situations.
Cars have carried this type of automation for decades. The cruise control you use to regulate your speed on the highway during commute or to save gas when on a road trip qualifies as driver assistance. Later technologies, such as parking assistant, lane-change assistant, etc. fall into this category, too.
When you essentially engage auto-pilot to let the vehicle control its steering and speed, the law refers to this as partial automation. The driver can still step on the brake and grab the wheel to take over. A malfunction in the software that refused to let the driver re-assume full control would place the manufacturer at greater fault.
When a vehicle can drive itself under specific conditions, we call this conditional automation. If the driver engages this feature, the autonomous technology takes over and resuming control may require interaction with the operations panel. A malfunction in the software that refused to let the driver re-assume full control would place the manufacturer at greater fault.
The vehicle involved can complete a trip on its own without any human interaction. The human in the driver’s seat largely amounts to a passenger. A malfunction in the software that refused to let the driver re-assume full control would place the manufacturer at greater fault.
Full automation refers to driverless vehicles. These vehicles, the ones featured in science fiction, aren’t yet legal on all roadways. Many manufacturers designed them, but they remain in the testing phase.
An Example of Complex Fault Determination
In 2018, an accident involving a driver for the ride share app Uber driving a self-driving vehicle and a pedestrian illustrated how complex these legal issues can become. A pedestrian stepped out in front of the moving vehicle, which had the right of way. The pedestrian did not have a crosswalk light and the vehicle did not have a stop light.
The driver of the Uber wasn’t paying attention to the road. He had set the vehicle on its highest available automation, so it did the driving itself.
The vehicle’s complex combination of technologies did work properly. The vehicle’s Light Detection and Ranging System (LIDAR) detected the pedestrian. The vehicle had time to stop to avoid hitting the pedestrian.
Although the manufacturer outfitted the vehicle with an automatic braking system, Uber disabled it. The vehicle could not stop itself despite the LIDAR sensing the human.
The pedestrian in the accident died.
One of the benefits of self-driving vehicles, its technologies, can provide a plethora of information. In some cases, vehicles outfitted with video cameras capture the entire accident on video. This dearth of digital data helps determine fault.
In the Uber example, the data showed that while the vehicle could have stopped itself in time had Uber not disabled the brakes, a human driver’s slower reaction time would not have likely been able to stop. The pedestrian had stepped in front of the vehicle, the data showed.
Without the full review of all of the accident data, just as in an accident that does not involve autonomous vehicles, the legal system cannot determine fault. Fault can be, and often is, complex.
Ultimately, the prosecutor in the Uber accident case did not bring criminal charges against Uber. Its driver plead not guilty. The National Transportation Safety Board did apprise Uber of issues it expected the company to address including the problem of “automation complacency” on the part of its drivers and its inadequate monitoring of drivers to ensure their proper and appropriate behavior. The driver in the accident had been watching an episode of “The Voice” while traveling in the driver’s seat. Its disabling of the automatic brakes the Board termed indicative of “inadequate safety risk assessment procedures.”
Matters of Legal Complexity
When you become involved in a self-driving car accident, your best choice remains obtaining experienced legal counsel. No car accident presents simple fault, but accidents involving self-driving vehicles present a more complex situation to determine fault than others.
In this new area of law, Congress has yet to make law and the Courts have yet to create case law. Self-driving vehicular accidents provide murky waters to navigate.
Under any vehicular accident situation, you should obtain adequate legal counsel. You probably feel confused and overwhelmed right after an accident. You may wonder how you will cover medical costs and pay for your vehicle repairs. With your mind racing, you probably don’t know the best course of action to take.
An attorney can help with that.
In Michigan, recovering compensation from a vehicular accident first requires filing an insurance claim with your own insurance company. Since the state uses the no-fault system, you won’t need to negotiate with the other driver to receive compensation. You can though. Your own insurance, as required by state law, should cover your accident though.
Here as well you may find issues. Your insurance company may deny your claim. Your insurance coverage may not fully cover the accident.
In all of these areas, hiring a personal injury attorney from Goodman Acker can help you to obtain the settlement you deserve to get your life back on track. Contact us for a free case evaluation at (248) 290-9184.