When a self-driving car crashes, whose fault is it?

This article looks at liability issues in self-driving car accidents and why establishing fault is so difficult.

The recent accident in Tempe, Arizona that saw a pedestrian fatally struck by a self-driving Uber car has put a spotlight on safety issues surrounding autonomous vehicles. The Arizona car accident is the first time that a self-driving car has been involved in a fatal collision with a pedestrian. Furthermore, as Fortune points out, it brings to the forefront a question that has been lingering over self-driving technology for some time now: when a self-driving car is responsible for an accident, who is held liable?

The liability challenges of self-driving cars

Advocates for self-driving cars claim that, in the long run, mass adoption of the technology will dramatically reduce accidents and insurance premiums. While that may be true, for the time being autonomous vehicles are still very much a work-in-progress and, as the Arizona accident shows, are far from perfect. Nonetheless, while the accident has resulted in some companies scaling back their self-driving car programs on public roads, it seems inevitable that eventually self-driving cars will grow in popularity.

However, current auto liability laws were not written with self-driving cars in mind. In most cases where a driver hits a pedestrian and fails to brake, liability would fall mostly on the driver. While self-driving cars, for the time being, are still required to have a backup driver behind the wheel to take over so as to avoid an accident, it can be all too tempting for such backup drivers to let their attention wander elsewhere. Video from the Arizona crash, for example, shows the driver looking down at her lap just prior to the accident.

Multiple companies involved

One challenge affecting liability in such crashes is just how complex the technology is. The software and hardware is supplied by dozens of different companies, meaning that placing liability on the car manufacturer itself may not be so straightforward. For the time being, insurers are treating self-driving cars the same as they treat any other vehicle, but it seems inevitable that the insurance industry will have to change its liability rules as self-driving cars spread.

One way that greater clarity on the issue could be achieved is through the courts. Unfortunately, accidents involving self-driving cars have, so far, all been settled outside of the court. For example, Uber and microchip developer Nvidia Corp settling with the family of the deceased pedestrian within 10 days of the accident in Arizona. By settling out of court, companies who may be liable for a self-driving accident avoid the risk of a judgment going against them. However, such out-of-court settlements also make it hard for precedent to be established concerning who is actually at fault in such accidents.

Personal injury law

For anybody who has been injured in an accident, it is important to reach out to a personal injury attorney immediately. As the above article shows, some accidents can raise extremely complex liability issues. In such cases, it pays to have an attorney on one's side who is experienced in different types of injury cases and who can put his or her skills to work advocating for injured clients.