Self-driving cars are intended to be safe alternatives to vehicles driven by people, eliminating the human errors that cause most car accidents. They are not always as safe as they seem, however, especially when they need to respond to an unexpected hazard or a situation that does not conform to standard traffic flow. Determining fault in an accident involving a self-driving car can be complicated because a driver has less control over the car’s actions. No federal regulations on this industry exist to date, but certain states have passed regulations that make manufacturers, owners, and drivers of self-driving cars responsible for accidents to varying degrees. The type of claim that an accident victim can bring thus may depend on the state where the accident happened.
State-specific laws and standards for self-driving vehicles may heavily influence fault in a self-driving car accident.
Suing the Driver
Even though self-driving cars do not rely on human control to the degree that ordinary cars do, a driver may not be completely free from liability. The law has not yet caught up to technology in this area, nor has technology made these vehicles completely independent of human control. In a self-driving car, a person usually still sits in the driver’s seat and is expected to be ready to take control of the vehicle should this be necessary. When there is no person in the car, a person monitors the car remotely and retains the ability to take control over its operation when needed. As a result, a victim who is struck by a self-driving car may be able to sue either of these people for failing to take control when safety required it.
Suing the Manufacturer
In states that view the automated driving system as the virtual “driver” of a self-driving car, a victim may sue the manufacturer if that driving system does not function safely. Automated driving systems are expected to make the car obey the rules of the road, so a failure in the system may support a claim against the company that made the system. Suing a manufacturer tends to be complicated and requires a thorough investigation into the events leading up to the accident. Your attorney may need to enlist professionals in the industry to analyze information in the vehicle’s data recorder. (This is similar to analyzing the “black box” that provides data on the operation of a truck.) A specialist also can explore whether there may have been a flaw in the system that made it unreasonably dangerous. This might support a design defect theory of liability in a products liability claim.
Companies such as Google and Uber have entered the field of self-driving vehicle technology and contributed to testing various models of cars. If their employees acted negligently in monitoring or controlling a self-driving vehicle, these companies may be on the hook for damages under the theory of vicarious liability. This involves showing that the employee was acting in the course of their job duties when their negligence caused the accident. Even if the company as an entity was not responsible, it can be held liable because of the employment relationship.