Who Is Liable for a Self-Driving Car Accident?

December 21, 2020

Self-driving car accidents have become more common throughout the US as more of these vehicles are manufactured and sold. Self-driving cars use some level of autonomy to operate themselves, either partially or fully. Lack of human driver control has led to confusion over who is liable for a self-driving car accident. The answer will depend on the circumstances surrounding the collision.

The Operator

The majority of self-driving vehicles on the road today are not fully self-driving; they still require some amount of human input or supervision. Most are semi-autonomous, meaning the person sitting in the driver’s seat still has some control, but the car takes over with self-driving capabilities to steer, brake or keep within the lane. Human error is the number one cause of car accidents, even in the autonomous vehicle industry.

The first self-driving car accident to kill a pedestrian took place in Arizona due in part to negligence by the vehicle’s operator. An investigation found the operator was watching an episode of The Voice on her phone when the self-driving car’s technology failed to detect a crossing pedestrian. The vehicle struck the pedestrian, a woman named Elaine Herzberg, and killed her. The safety driver, Rafaela Vasquez, was later charged with negligent homicide.

If the car involved in your crash had a human operator that should have been supervising but failed to fulfill his or her responsibilities, this person may be liable for the wreck. If the human made a mistake or error in judgment that contributed to the self-driving car accident, such as failing to take back control from the self-driving technology in dangerous conditions, the human could be liable for a related crash.

The Self-Driving Vehicle or Technology Manufacturer

Several self-driving car accidents that have already occurred have traced back to defects or malfunctions with the autonomous vehicle technology. The first self-driving car accident to kill a driver, for example, occurred when the vehicle’s sensors failed to detect the side of a semi-truck, leading to the vehicle failing to stop and a deadly collision with the side of the truck. In a case where a defect with the vehicle, technology or software causes a car accident, the manufacturer of the defective piece of equipment could be responsible.

Autonomous vehicle technology is highly advanced and complex. Even a minor malfunction could lead to a devastating car accident. If an investigation finds the technology or software to be to blame for a wreck, the design or manufacturing company could be liable for victims’ injuries. A product manufacturer could be liable for an auto accident if the part that caused the crash contained a design, manufacturing or marketing defect.

The City or State Government

Some self-driving car accidents have occurred while the company was safety-testing the vehicle on public roadways. This was the case with the fatal pedestrian accident in Arizona, which was a safety test of an Uber self-driving car. These crashes may point to the liability of a government agency if it used lax rules and standards in the safety-testing of self-driving vehicles in the state, city or municipality. If the organization should have been more stringent in its safety measures during autonomous vehicle testing, it may share liability for a subsequent accident.

Another Driver

Aside from concerns related specifically to self-driving cars, these accidents also involve the ordinary issues of standard car accidents. The liable party could be a third-party driver if that driver caused the crash through carelessness such as speeding or running a red light. Another possibility is liability going to the government for a roadway defect, such as a missing guardrail, that contributes to a self-driving vehicle wreck. In some cases, multiple parties share fault for injuries or deaths from self-driving car accidents. Discuss liability for your self-driving car accident in Arizona with an attorney for more information about your specific case.