Who pays after a driverless car accident?

512px-Google-s_Lexus_RX_450h_Self-Driving_Car

With self-driving cars getting the proper kudos they deserve (mostly), it seems that the driverless cars are here to stay after they prove themselves more reliable. However, there have been a few crashes, some caused by self-driving cars and some by regular motorists. The question for now and especially for the future is, “Who will pay after a driverless car causes an accident?”

Now, establishing liability for an accident is pretty clear in most cases. If a motorist is at fault in an accident that causes personal injury and property damage, the at-fault driver is responsible. It is normally his or her car insurance policy that pays up.

What happens when there is no driver against which to claim liability? No driver, no individual car insurance. Who will shoulder the blame?

In a recent Washington Post interview with University of South Carolina Law professor Bryant Walker Smith, Smith said that, “As a result of ‘autonomous vehicles’ and ‘automated driving systems’, there will be a shift in blame for a crash from the at-fault driver to the automotive industry and the conglomerate of manufacturers and software developers who design and update [driverless] car computers.”

Liability for driverless cars

It seems only reasonable that manufacturers of driverless cars should be held liable when autonomous vehicles or driverless software cause an accident. Oddly, support for what appears to be a very logical train of thought by manufacturers has been slow. Some manufacturers who have shown support are Volvo, Tesla, Google and Mercedes.

Some manufacturers and attorneys are calling for a general compensation fund to compensate the victims of driverless car crashes.

Concerned that fear of driverless car lawsuits could thwart the positive technical advances from becoming widespread, a group called SAFE (Securing America’s Future Energy) has called for the creation of a U.S. legal liability fund for legitimate claims compensation.

Professor Smith’s predictions about liability and driverless vehicles

In the Washington Post article cited above, Professor Smith predicted the following about how liability and driverless vehicle accidents will be handled.

  • “There will be a shift from driver liability to product liability, making the automotive industry the primary liability stakeholders.”
  • “When manufacturers imply their automated systems are at least as safe as a human driver, they may face a misrepresentation suit in cases that contradict that expectation.”
  • “The argument that an automated system performed unreliably will be central to personal-injury claims.”
  • “A key question in litigation will be whether a human driver or a comparable automated system would have performed better than the automated system in question.”
  • “Another key question: Could a reasonable change in a vehicle’s automated system have prevented the crash?”
  • “There could be a higher standard for automated vehicles. Smith cites a hypothetical case in which two cars collide at an intersection. One of the cars ran a stop sign, but it might be argued that systems in the other car should have recognized that the first car was going so fast that it would not stop at the sign. So, should that car share blame for the crash?”
  • “In the shift from driver liability to product liability, plaintiffs would pursue significant injury claims and usually recover less, but if they prevail, they would receive higher damages. That’s largely because an unprecedented level of data on the cause of the crash will be stored in the vehicles’ computers, virtually replacing the post-crash investigation by a police officer who didn’t witness the incident.”

Neither the questions nor answers about liability for driverless car accidents are going to be very easy. I will be very interested to see how lawmakers, insurance companies, vehicle manufacturers, software developers and the public weigh in on the more complicated aspects of who pays when someone is injured in an autonomous car crash.

What are your thoughts?

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Attribution: By Driving_Google_Self-Driving_Car.jpg: Steve Jurvetson derivative work: Mariordo [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Washington Post

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