Driverless Vehicles and the Future of Accident Liability

Earlier this month, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk made waves in the automotive industry when he announced that his company was just two years away from releasing its first fully autonomous vehicle. Prior to this announcement, even the most optimistic industry forecasters estimated that it would be about five years before driverless cars hit the consumer market.

Coming from anyone else, Musk’s estimate might sound like a desperate grab for media attention. But in light of the fact that his other company, SpaceX, just successfully landed a rocket upright after returning from orbit for the first time in history, his prediction about driverless cars doesn’t seem quite so outrageous.

Whether or not Musk’s estimate will prove to be accurate, there’s little doubt that sooner or later driverless vehicles will become commonplace on America’s roadways. Once this day does come, the questions surrounding accident liability could get a whole lot more complicated. Automakers, legislators and insurance providers are already working to hammer out the details of how fault will be established in car accidents that involve autonomous vehicles. Let’s take a look at a few of the hot-button issues surrounding accident liability and driverless cars.

Joint Liability Between Man and Machine

At least initially, autonomous vehicles will still need to have a driver behind the wheel. In California, legislation has already been passed that requires a licensed driver behind the wheel of any partially or fully autonomous vehicle. So let’s say one of these vehicles gets in an accident. Is the computer at fault, or the driver?

Maybe the driver panicked and took control of the vehicle moments before the accident. Or maybe a technical defect caused the computer to crash the vehicle into an obstacle. In this second case, would the driver be partially at fault for failing to take control of the vehicle in time to avoid the accident? These are complex scenarios with a great deal of room for interpretation. Fortunately, according to a recent article in the Atlantic, well-established product liability legislation can already account for a number of these hypotheticals. Rather than coming up with a whole new set of laws to govern autonomous vehicle liability, the author argues that we can simply adapt existing legislation instead.

Utilitarian Considerations

What if your autonomous vehicle had to kill you to save other lives? Let’s say you’re the only passenger in the vehicle, and it’s rapidly approaching an intersection where you have the green light. On either side of the road are concrete barriers. Just before the car reaches the intersection, three pedestrians suddenly rush out into traffic ahead of you. They’re close enough that the vehicle won’t be able to brake in time to avoid hitting them. Should the car’s navigation software direct it to crash into one of those barriers to avoid hitting the pedestrians? According to an article in the MIT Technology Review, it might have to. To minimize the loss of life in car accidents, autonomous vehicles will have to make some split-second decisions that raise some extremely tough ethical questions. No doubt these ethical questions will have an enormous influence on the way we establish liability in car accidents as well.

Will Automakers Assume Responsibility?

Late last year, Volvo announced that it would accept fully liability for accidents involving its autonomous vehicles. Google, another prominent advocate of driverless vehicle technologies, has made similar assertions in the past. Volvo made the announcement in hopes that it would pressure lawmakers to enact nationwide regulatory measures to govern autonomous vehicle deployment. Currently, many automakers are concerned that legal variances between states will hamstring distribution of driverless cars on the consumer market. By assuming responsibility for its vehicles’ actions, Volvo hopes that it will put at least one important regulatory dilemma to rest.

“Everybody is aware of the fact that driverless technology will never be perfect – one day there will be an accident. So the question becomes who is responsible and we think it’s unrealistic to put that responsibility on our customers,” said Erik Coelingh, Volvo’s chief technical officer in an interview with the BBC.

If automakers want to see their driverless vehicles hit the road in a timely fashion, they may have to make more concessions such as this one to appease regulatory agencies.

These are just a few of the liability issues currently facing the automakers designing the world’s first driverless cars. Rest assured that when the day does finally come when driverless vehicles are available on the consumer market, the attorneys at Hirsch & Lyon Accident Law will be there to protect you in the event of an accident.