Driverless Cars: How Is Fault Determined After A Crash?

Driverless vehicles, once considered a concept existing only in science fiction, have become something closer to a reality as companies such as Uber and Tesla are actively developing and testing driverless car technologies.

Not every American driver is convinced of these vehicles’ safety, however. A national survey from AAA showed that as many as 63 percent of Americans report being afraid of driverless cars, with less reluctance reported by male and millennial drivers.

In light of how the majority of surveyed Americans perceive driverless cars, however, one important question being asked is: how will driverless car crashes be handled under state and federal traffic laws?

Determining fault in a car accident can in some cases become tricky, influenced by factors such as driver negligence and malfunctioning car parts. With driverless cars, determining liability can reasonably be expected to be even more complex. This is a consideration that car accident lawyers are exploring as this once-futuristic concept gains greater support nationwide.

Level Of Automation And Fault

Not every driverless, or automated vehicle, operates in the same way. Automated vehicles are currently being classified according to a six-level scale developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

These levels of automation include:

Level 0 — No automation

Level 1 — Driver Assistance:  Vehicle is controlled by the driver; however, the vehicle design may include some driver assist features.

Level 2 — Partial Automation: The vehicle contains some automation features; however, the driver must continue to monitor the environment and remain engaged in driving tasks.

Level 3 — Conditional Automation: The driver is not required to monitor the environment; however, the driver must be capable of taking over control of the vehicle at all times with notice.

Level 4 — High Automation: Most vehicle features and functions are automated; the driver may have the option of regaining control of the vehicle, as needed or if desired.

Level 5 — Complete Automation: The vehicle is capable of performing all driving functions without driver assistance or support; the driver may have the option to control the vehicle.

A vehicle’s level of automation can be a determining factor in identifying fault in a car accident. Drivers, or passengers, in vehicles that are classified at a lower level of automation may be more likely to be held responsible for accident-related damage or injury than passengers in fully-automated cars. In driverless car crashes that do not contain any passengers, liability for the accident might fall on the car manufacturer or another entity deemed responsible for the crash.

Determining Fault In Driverless Car Crashes

In any car accident that results in property damage, injury, or death, determining fault can be key in securing personal injury or vehicular damage coverage.

Unlike crashes involving your standard car, driverless car crashes are unique in that these crashes may not necessarily occur at the fault of the driver inside—if such a driver is present. This has important implications for car accident liability, as more than 90 percent of car accidents occur due to human error.

The level of automation that a vehicle operates at is perhaps the most significant factor in determining liability in an accident. Many of the autonomous vehicles that are on the road at this point are Level 1 or 2, which means that drivers may still maintain a moderate amount of control over driving functions.

Drivers who are riding in a Level 1 or 2 automated vehicle may be held liable for full or partial fault in an accident if they have demonstrated negligence. Negligent behavior may include driving while distracted (e.g. texting and driving), failing to follow traffic laws, or failing to regain control over the semi-automated vehicle when the vehicle has signaled for the driver to do so.

However, as cars become more automated, determining fault in driverless car crashes may rely more on vehicle design and functionality than the behavior of those riding within the vehicle.

In driverless car crashes involving a fully automated vehicle, parties that can be held liable for resulting property damage or injury may include:

  • vehicle manufacturer
  • software designer
  • fleet owner
  • manufacturer of vehicle components

In addition, the cause of the accident will also be an important factor in determining fault. If a driver had control over the vehicle at the time of the accident, or was capable of taking control, they might be held liable for the accident and resulting consequences.

If the accident occurred as a result of a software malfunction or vehicle design error, then a car accident lawyer might find the manufacturer of the defective car part or the car manufacturer to be the party at-fault and therefore liable for any resulting injury.

According to NHTSA, information regarding car accident liability with fully automated driverless cars has not yet been released to the public. Determining vehicle safety and accident laws specific to fully automated vehicles is an ongoing project being undertaken by U.S. policymakers.

High-Profile Driverless Car Crashes

Although increased safety is touted as one of the potential benefits of fully automated driverless cars, ensuring the safety of these vehicles is also one of the greatest concerns people have.

Following several high-profile driverless car accidents in 2018 and 2019, public support for driverless cars noticeably dropped, with more people expressing anxiety about not only using these automated vehicles, but also potentially sharing the road with them.

One incident involving an automated Uber vehicle in Arizona, for instance, gained national attention after fatally hitting a jaywalker, who was not detected as a pedestrian by the vehicle. A semi-automated Tesla vehicle, known as Autopilot, also came under fire in 2018 after one man’s Autopilot slammed into a highway divider and burst into flames—killing the driver inside.

Both of these accidents were consequently investigated by the NHTSA, which has been one of the primary agencies supporting the advancement of self-driving vehicles. Many of the current driverless vehicle models record driving data, which has been used to determine manufacturer liability in the more serious accidents that have occurred involving these innovative vehicles.

As self-driving car manufacturers like Uber, Tesla, and Waymo continue modifying and improving their autonomous vehicle designs, policymakers will likely continue their efforts to determine how driverless crashes—and the degree of fault in these incidents— might be handled under federal and state laws.

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