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Autonomous Cars Pose New Risks, Liability Issues for Drivers & Auto Industry


Once thought of as a fantastical idea, driverless cars are here, and although still in the testing phase, autonomous vehicles will most certainly play an essential role in the future of transportation. While we’re reading about this advanced technology in the media, nearly every auto manufacturer is focused on developing their version of the driverless car and preparing for any accident-related liability issues.

However, many people and lawmakers are concerned that the country won’t be able to safely transition from human-piloted vehicles to autonomous ones. In fact, according to a newly released Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, 50% of adults in the United States think automated vehicles are more dangerous than traditional vehicles operated by people, and nearly two-thirds said they would not buy a fully autonomous vehicle.

Even though public mistrust and the unwillingness to pay for self-driving systems are problems, car makers continue to push forward to advance this technology. Just last week, Toyota Motor Corp. made a significant $1 billion investment in Uber Technology, Inc.’s Advanced Technologies Group, which is developing self-driving vehicles. This investment will help Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group further develop self-driving hardware and scale up production.

As self-driving cars become more prevalent on our roads and highways, we’re likely going to witness many accidents that are accompanied by challenging liability issues. There have already been two deaths related to semi-autonomous cars.

In 2016, the driver of a Tesla that was on auto-pilot was killed in an accident. The federal auto-safety regulators claimed their investigation of the car found: no defects in the system that could have caused the crash; that human error was to blame; and that there was no reason to recall Tesla’s Autopilot-enabled cars. In other words, the outcome was a significant win for Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk.

Last year, a second death occurred when a self-driving vehicle killed a pedestrian in Arizona. The car was in autonomous mode, and a safety driver was sitting in the driver’s seat. The Yavapai County Attorney’s Office, which reviewed the case, found no criminal liability for Uber and said investigators should look into what the safety driver “would or should have seen that night given the vehicle’s speed, lighting conditions, and other relevant factors.”

Human error is responsible for over 90% of all vehicle crashes each year. Automobile manufacturers, safety organizations, and even insurance companies are hoping that driverless cars will save lives by eliminating accidents caused by human error. Sadly, not even semi-autonomous vehicles are free from this risk factor; in fact, experts predict that our over-dependence on technology will lead to an overwhelming deterioration of driving skills and general driver laziness, two qualities that can only lead to unfortunate scenarios.

But who’s to blame when a driverless car injures or kills someone?

Assigning Responsibility

To tackle the liability question, we need to ask how and why a self-driving car could kill someone. Unlike people, cars don’t experience road rage, suffer fatigue, or drink a beer before hitting the highway.

Just like people, however, they can still make mistakes. In human-driven cars, the answer is often reasonably clear-cut, especially if a driver makes a mistake and there are no extenuating circumstances. When it comes to autonomous vehicles, determining liability is much more challenging. 

For starters, there are various levels of driving autonomy to consider: fully-autonomous and multiple degrees of partially-autonomous.

For partially-autonomous vehicles, which still involve some human control, assigning liability depends on what actions led to the collision, and whether it was based on decisions made by the driver or the vehicle. But for fully autonomous vehicles, the blame can be shared by many parties, including the manufacturer, the software provider, the service center, and possibly the property owner. The onus of negligence liability can also fall on the owner for failing to implement a software update from the manufacturer.

Moving forward, automakers need to be very clear about how their systems are meant to be used. As they work on perfecting this technology, they also need to contemplate issues like ethics and liability.

Rest assured, the Wisconsin car accident lawyer at Casey Law Offices will continue to keep track of the safety and liability issues surrounding driverless cars. We will share any updates with you as they become available. Meanwhile, if you have any questions regarding this matter or other driver liability issues, please contact our offices at (414) 272-5564.