Liability for Autonomous Cars

It’s no longer a question of if autonomous cars will hit the highways, but when. Vehicle manufacturers have made major breakthroughs in car autonomy in recent years thanks to advances in technology. Now, self-driving cars are reaching the hands of the masses, for better or worse. Unfortunately, autonomous vehicle accidents and related deaths and injuries have already made headlines around the U.S. When a driverless car crashes, who is liable? This is the question victims find themselves asking in a legal area that’s still developing.

What Happens When There is No Driver?

An automated vehicle takes out the main defendant in the majority of car accident claims – the other driver. In most car accidents in Minnesota, one driver will be at fault. Regardless of fault (since Minnesota is a no-fault state), each driver will seek recovery through his/her own insurance company, unless injuries are severe enough to qualify for an injury claim. What happens, however, when it is not the driver that caused the crash, but a defect in the self-driving system? This shifts the driving responsibility from humans to technology.

As of yet, there has been no such shift in state liability laws. It can be difficult, therefore, to assign liability and identify the proper remedies for damages. If it is a defect in the autonomous car’s technology that caused the crash, victims may have claims against the product manufacturer. A defect was the case in the fatal 2016 Tesla crash. In this accident, the operator used Tesla’s advanced driver assistance features “Traffic-Aware Cruise Control” and “Autosteer Lane Keeping Assistance.” The technology failed to detect the side of a semi due to the white color blending in with the sky. The resultant crash killed the single occupant of the Tesla.

A product liability claim against the manufacturer of the autonomous vehicle may be possible if a defect existed that caused or contributed to the crash. Strict liability laws mean the plaintiff would not have to prove the vehicle manufacturer’s negligence if the vehicle had a manufacturing error, dangerous design flaw, or marketing defect. Otherwise, a plaintiff will have to prove the defendant’s negligence or breach of duty in causing the crash to occur.

Multiple Defendants in Driverless Car Crashes

There may be the opportunity to sue more than one manufacturer for a driverless vehicle accident. The car manufacturer, the company that created the autonomous car, and the company that created the automated technology may all become defendants, or even share liability for a single accident. These complex cases would take a team of attorneys to investigate the cause of the accident, look for possible manufacturing defects, and assign fault. Some companies, including Volvo, have pledged to take responsibility for accidents its self-driving technology causes.

In some cases, vehicle manufacturers could make the argument of comparative negligence or misuse of the vehicle. Minnesota abides by modified comparative negligence laws, giving plaintiffs the opportunity to recover compensation even if they share fault for a driverless vehicle accident. Another defense, the “state of the art” defense, could come into play if the manufacturer argues that there were no safe alternative designs at the time of manufacture. Always speak to an attorney after a self-driving vehicle collision.