Who Is Liable in a Crash Caused by an Autonomous Vehicle?

There is a common misconception among proponents of self-driving cars that they completely eliminate the risk of a crash. As we’ve already seen in the news, our New Mexico injury lawyer adds, autonomous vehicles can be in crashes and, even though there are still very few on the road, have already been involved in collisions.

We take a look at some of the safety problems autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles might have and explain how an Albuquerque car accident attorney can help if you are injured by your own or another self-driving vehicle.

What Is an Autonomous Vehicle?

Not too long ago, the idea of a self-driving car sounded crazy. However, the technology has progressed so quickly that completely autonomous cars are already a reality—if not in every driveway yet. Autonomous vehicle technology has been commonplace in vehicles since around 2010 when driver-assist features such as rearview cameras, Pressing an Autonomous Drive Start Buttonautomatic emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alerts, and lane-centering assistance were introduced.

Starting with the 2016 model year, many cars offered partially automated safety features such as lane-keeping assistance, adaptive cruise control, and fully automated parallel parking abilities. These features allow a driver to take their hands completely off the wheel as the car controls itself.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a fully automated vehicle is capable of performing all driving functions under all conditions. In other words, a self-driving car can sense its environment and surroundings to move safely with little or no human input.

Safety Concerns About Self-Driving Cars

Human drivers are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but alert drivers are capable of quickly assessing their surroundings and taking evasive action when something is not right.

Autonomous vehicle systems, however, could be thrown by the slightest curveball, such as rain showers or poorly marked pavement. Areas where autonomous cars are likely to fail include:

  • Predicting behavior. Humans are unpredictable, but no one is better at predicting a human’s next move than another human. When we are driving, we are constantly evaluating what another driver or a pedestrian might do next and taking action to avoid a collision. Programming a vehicle to do this is nearly impossible, as was shown in the crash of an Uber test vehicle in 2018. Because the vehicle failed to predict that a pedestrian on the side of the road would step out into the road, the car hit and killed her.
  • Handling a mechanical problem. A sudden mechanical problem, such as a tire blowout or brake failure, can cause an accident. A competent human driver is more likely to be able to determine their options for avoiding a crash—such as steering into an empty field or honking to warn other drivers—than a pre-programmed machine.
  • Failed sensors. Self-driving cars depend on their sensors for safe maneuvering. If a sensor fails or is blocked by mud, snow, or raindrops, the car will be driving blind. Likewise, if the road markers that the car depends on to position itself in a lane are worn or covered up, it will not be able to function.

When a crash involving a self-driving car occurs, determining exactly what caused the crash will be key in deciding who is liable.

Who Is Liable When an Autonomous Car Crashes?

This is a relatively untested area of personal injury law, and it is sure to raise multiple legal issues, but it’s likely that there could be several liable parties when an autonomous car is at fault for injuring another party. These include:

  • The driver. Most self-driving cars will continue to have someone behind the wheel. If that person failed to override a malfunctioning system or failed to maintain the vehicle as required by the manufacturer, the driver could be liable.
  • The owner. A common use of autonomous cars is going to be as a fleet vehicle. Whether it is delivering pizza or driving passengers, the car cannot be held liable, but the company that owns it can be.
  • The manufacturer. All major automakers are working on fully autonomous vehicles, as are brand-new companies. If a self-driving car causes a crash that leaves someone injured, the manufacturer is likely a liable party.
  • The software developer. What if a malfunction in the car’s technology is what causes the crash, and the auto manufacturer outsourced software development to another company? Then that company could be held liable as well.

The good news is, as an injured victim of a car crash, you do not have to identify the liable party on your own. A personal injury legal team will do that for you.

Keller & Keller Is on the Cutting Edge of Car Accident Law

While we don’t see fully autonomous vehicles causing a lot of problems anytime soon, driver-assist technology is already in most new vehicles and could play a part in an accident. Is the driver blaming a system malfunction for a crash? Did a prototype vehicle crash into a pedestrian or another vehicle? These are cases we fully expect to see right now. If you were involved in a crash with any kind of vehicle that left you seriously injured, contact an experienced auto accident attorney at Keller & Keller in Albuquerque. We are prepared for any type of case! 

James R. Keller
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