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Who Is Responsible When a Self-Driving Car Causes an Accident?

Experienced Lawyer

When drivers find themselves stuck in rush hour traffic or wishing they had time to do something more productive than watching the road, the idea of having a car that drives itself sounds quite amazing.

The recent push for self-driving cars is driven both by technology companies and automobile manufacturers, that see a market for vehicles that allow drivers to simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. Ride-sharing competitors like Uber and Lyft view self-driving cars as a way to maintain fares they now share with drivers. Trucking companies also hope that self-driving technology can save them the cost of paying truck drivers.

How long it might take for self-driving cars to carry a significant percentage of the nation’s traffic is anyone’s guess, however, self-driving cars are a reality and are being used. Waymo’s (Google’s first company to focus on self-driving technology) vehicles have logged millions of miles on public roads.

The main benefit of using self-driving cars is to reduce traffic accidents. The insurance industry supports self-driving cars for that reason, although whether fewer claims will translate into lower insurance premiums is, once more, anyone’s guess.

Self-Driving Car Accidents

Self-driving technology is not however, infallible[1]. The Tesla Autopilot (like the Cadillac Super Cruise and the Nissan ProPilot Assist) is not entirely self-driving but keeps the car in its lane to avoid collisions, allowing a driver to take his or her hands off the wheel while continuing to watch the road. Unfortunately, two Tesla drivers were killed while using the system. One car veered off and hit a truck and the other a highway barrier. How to allocate blame between Tesla and the drivers is a difficult question that will likely have to be resolved through litigation.

Waymo is blaming a “backup driver” for a collision that took place in California between a self-driving minivan and a motorcycle[2]. The driver took over the operation of the vehicle when it appeared that it was about to hit the motorcyclist. Waymo claims that the self-driving minivan would have avoided the accident if the driver had not taken control of the vehicle, but the accuracy of that claim has not yet been evaluated by regulators.

Earlier this year, a self-driving Uber killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona[3]. A “safety driver” was apparently watching a streaming program at the time of the collision and took no action to intervene when the car’s autonomous driving system failed to detect a woman walking her bicycle across the street.

Self-driving car companies have often used Arizona as a testing ground, in part because they don’t have to contend with ice-covered roads and because Arizona has allowed testing with little regulation. Waymo’s self-driving vehicles have crashed 21 times in five million miles, a per-mile crash rate similar to the rate when humans are behind the wheel.[4] Whether those crashes are attributable to the self-driving system, to “safety drivers” who are sometimes (but not always) behind the wheel, or to other vehicles involved in the crash, is often unclear.

Liability Issues Surrounding Self-Driving Vehicles

These questions might become even more difficult when cars and trucks become driverless. When fleets of trucks are driven by robotic systems rather than humans, who should be blamed when a truck misses a red light and kills the occupants of a family sedan? If GM manufactures the Chevy Bolt without a working steering wheel or pedals, preventing a driver from seizing control in an emergency, who is at fault when the Bolt crashes?

When a driver fails to yield to a pedestrian who is lawfully in a crosswalk, liability is clear. When a driverless car strikes the same pedestrian, fault is more difficult to determine. Was the problem caused by software or hardware? Should the pedestrian sue the owner of the car, the manufacturer of the car, the manufacturer of the sensor that failed to detect the pedestrian, the manufacturer of the computer that failed to detect the malfunctioning sensor, the company that wrote the software, or all of the above?

Determining liability may require an expensive investigation by automotive engineers to determine fault. That would be an unacceptable result when compensation for an injury is less than the cost of performing the investigation. Nor should it be necessary to sue multiple parties for a simple accident involving one car and one victim.

Legislative Solutions to the Liability Problem

States need to think seriously about crafting legislation that will avoid letting responsible parties off the hook when it would be costly to pinpoint fault. When a self-driving car causes an accident, the company that insures the car’s owner should be responsible for paying the claim. A car accident lawyer can help you get the compensation you deserve.

States should assure that insurance policies are written to cover not just operation by a negligent driver, but the negligent self-driving of the insured vehicle. If the injured party or the insurance company that pays the claim wants to pursue a manufacturer, they should have that option, but states should assure that vehicle owners and their insurers have primary responsibility for accident claims involving self-driving cars.


[1] Davies, Alex. “What Is a Self-Driving Car? The Complete WIRED Guide.” Wired, Conde Nast, 01 Feb. 2018, www.wired.com/story/guide-self-driving-cars/.

[2] Said, Carolyn. “Waymo Robot Car Injures Motorcyclist – but Human Driver at Fault.” San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, 6 Nov. 2018, www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/Waymo-robot-car-injures-motorcyclist-but-13365135.php.

[3] Griggs, Troy, and Daisuke Wakabayashi. “How a Self-Driving Uber Killed a Pedestrian in Arizona.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Mar. 2018, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/03/20/us/self-driving-uber-pedestrian-killed.html.

[4] Davies, Aarian Marshall and Alex. “Waymo’s Self-Driving Car Crash in Arizona Revives Tough Questions.” Wired, Conde Nast, 6 May 2018, www.wired.com/story/waymo-crash-self-driving-google-arizona/.

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