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Autonomous Vehicles: Who Is Held Liable?


As technology continues to revolutionize the world around us, we must be cognizant of the new risks that are inevitably involved. This is especially true with autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles have been gaining popularity with the thought that fully autonomous vehicles will help reduce the rate of accidents, particularly those involving human error. However, there are still many unanswered questions regarding liability when there is a traffic accident involving an autonomous vehicle.

Earlier this year in Arizona, a pedestrian was hit by a self-driving Uber vehicle, causing the pedestrian’s death. As Tim Bellon describes in his article, “Liability and Legal Questions Follow Uber Autonomous Car Fatal Accident,” in the accident, the pedestrian was walking her bicycle outside the crosswalk on a four-lane road in a Phoenix suburb when she was hit by a Volvo, which was traveling in autonomous mode at about 40 miles per hour. Bellon further states that the Tempe Police Department reported that it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) because the pedestrian came from the shadows right into the roadway. Although it is unclear if a lawsuit will ensue, the result of this accident has raised a critical concern revolving around autonomous vehicles. In most states, drivers are required to exercise due care to avoid hitting pedestrians on a roadway, even if the pedestrians use an unmarked crosswalk. As a result, car manufacturers, any companies that supplied self-driving technology, and the “safety” driver behind the wheel but who appears not to have operated the vehicle could all be named as defendants if a law suit ensues.

Many states have enacted legislation to help combat against the increasing use of autonomous vehicles. Illinois has enacted the Autonomous Vehicle Act in 2017. 2017 Legis. Bill Hist. IL H.B. 2747. The Act discusses liability for accidents involving a fully autonomous vehicle. Liability shall be determined under existing product liability law or common law negligence principles. Id. Additionally, for a fully autonomous vehicle that has at all times been maintained in compliance with the manufacturer's specifications and has not been modified without the manufacturer's consent, the manufacturer shall be liable for accidents when the automated driving system technology is: (i) in control of the vehicle at the time of the accident; and (ii) at fault for the accident. Id. Although the Act holds that car manufacturers of autonomous vehicles can be held liable, the waters have yet to be tested. As Bernie Woodall describes, similar to the accident in Arizona, many of the accidents involving autonomous vehicles will not culminate into a legal battle. Instead, these cases are privately settled outside of court.

Although there is no clear rule that explicitly determines liability in an accident involving autonomous vehicles, one thing is certain: multiple defendants may be possible. In his ABA Journal article, “Who’s to blame when self-driving cars crash?” Steven Seidenberg explained that the company that wrote the car’s software, the businesses that made the car’s components, the automobile manufacturer, the fleet owner (such as Uber) may all be held accountable for any accidents involving autonomous vehicles. Seidenberg continues to explain the current dilemma with determining liability. First, the negligence standard might make it too expensive for crash victims to obtain justice. Id. Second, the strict liability standard might discourage companies from putting highly automated vehicles (HAV) on the road. Id. As such, other less traditional methods for handling HAV tort liability are being considered for the best method to hold a party liable. One thought is to use the no-fault system, funded by buyers of autonomous vehicles or by a percentage of state motor vehicle fees. Id. This set of system would be similar to the system created for the socially beneficial product of vaccines. In 1986, Congress required vaccine makers to contribute to a no-fault compensation fund. Sufferers then go before special vaccine courts that cannot award punitive damages but can only award compensation. Id. Seidenberg argues that a similar system needs to be created for driverless cars.

The future of driving is near: autonomous cars are here to stay. But as technology rapidly changes, legislation can become obsolete very quickly. There is no clear law or standard to hold potential defendants liable for an accident involving autonomous vehicles. Without legal precedent in place, these companies involved in creating or manufacturing autonomous vehicles have settled privately with the victims. Despite the hope that autonomous cars will reduce traffic accidents and increase safe driving, it is inevitable that accidents will occur. If you have been injured in accident involving an autonomous vehicle, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact us at 312-627-1650 for a free consultation and case review.
Categories: personal injury