If a Car Has No Driver, Who Do You Sue? Driverless-Car Lawsuits

A fatal accident provided the world a glimpse of the future recently. According to NBC Los Angeles News, a male driver of a Tesla Model S died in a crash in Florida while his car was operating in its autopilot mode. The car was driving down a highway when a tractor-trailer truck made a left turn and crossed in front of the Tesla’s lane of traffic. The car’s semi-autonomous autopilot driving system did not register the white truck against a bright sky and the brakes never applied.

The crash immediately brought up questions of responsibility. The car manufacturer company Tesla denied responsibility for the crash while expressing condolences to the man’s family. In their statement, Tesla noted that the autopilot feature included in the Tesla Model S is not meant to completely replace the skills and attention of the driver. Not only that, the company has warned all drivers in the past that human drivers should always keep their hands on the wheel and such warnings are reiterated when driving the vehicle.

But this still leaves the question of responsibility up in the air. In the future, where it is not a person doing most of the driving or any driving at all, who will bear the liability and responsibility for injuries and damages caused by a car accident?

Autonomous Vehicles and Semi-Autonomous Vehicles on the Rise

Driverless cars that can operate independently of their drivers or software assisting drivers can no longer be considered a novelty. On the very same day that the first known fatality occurred in a “driverless” car, German automaker BMW announced that it would offer a self-driving car by 2021. Ford, Google, and Volvo are already actively developing their own fully autonomous vehicles.

A Matter of Opinion

The three companies named above are taking a markedly different approach to driverless cars than Tesla’s. Tesla’s system is not meant to fully replace a human driver and only takes over in certain circumstances, such as to prevent an accident. Typically this will involve activating the brakes or turning the car away from an obstacle. While the driver may be able to place his attention elsewhere for a stretch of time, they are still required to be able to take over the responsibility of handling the car at a moment’s notice.

Ford, Google, and Volvo consider this type of technology to be inherently dangerous to everyone on the road. The danger arises from the fact that such technology can lure the driver into a false sense of security. If the computer makes a mistake, then the driver has to take over. However, since the driver is not operating the vehicle while the computer operates the car, the driver becomes distracted, even lulled into a false sense of security that the car will be able to handle whatever issues that arise. When it comes time for the driver to take over, they are too slow to react.

Your Car, Your Responsibility?

None of this answers the sticky legal question of who is responsible if a semi-autonomous or driverless car injures someone or damages someone’s property. Unfortunately as of right now the answer is not so clear.

Common sense may suggest that if a passenger of a driverless vehicle, since the car is technically the driver, is involved in an accident, the passenger has no responsibility for the accident and liability to anyone hurt or injured. After all, because the passenger is not the one driving the car, they could not be at fault. This would suggest that the manufacturer who created the parts that failed to operate correctly is responsible for the accident.

But this might be an oversimplification. A driverless vehicle may not be operated by the passengers in the car but it is still owned by someone. That person is allowing a vehicle that may not operate correctly and be dangerous to operate on the road. This suggests that the owner of the vehicle may eventually end up shouldering some of the liability if their driverless vehicle is involved in an accident.

Semi-Autonomous Vehicles, Semi-Liable

The situation is much more murky when it comes to vehicles like the Tesla Model S that are not fully automated but instead offer systems by which the car works in tandem with the driver. In a situation like this, technically both the computer system and the driver are operating the car. If the car is involved in an accident both would be to blame.

How much each party is to blame in a situation like this is the real tricky issue. Ultimately the system set by the Tesla Model S requires that the driver be ready to take over when necessary. The system in the car is simply not able to handle all situations and therefore must be constantly supervised by the driver. Some may question whether or not the computer system is ever really operating the vehicle at all.

At the same time though these systems are offered to drivers as being safer on the road than traditional ‘dumb’ cars. A Tesla Model S may break if an obstacle suddenly appears or take over control in certain situations where it believes that you the driver are in danger. Drivers may come to expect such a system to work in every situation, thereby luring them into a false sense of security, as Google and Ford believe it does. In a situation where a driver expects the car’s systems to prevent accidents, the liability for an accident might be on the manufacturer of the car and the developer of the system.

Looking Forward in Litigating Car Accidents

There are no clear answers at the moment as to who bears the responsibility in these situations. The number of accidents involving these types of cars is limited, which may actually speak to their success in preventing accidents. However, car accidents inevitably happen. Whether it is now or in the future, whoever is responsible for an accident should pay for the injuries and damages they caused.

Even if determining who the liable party gets more complex, people will still need to turn to someone experienced in auto accident injuries. If you or someone you know has been injured in a car accident in the greater Los Angeles area, contact the personal injury attorneys at Citywide Law Group in Los Angeles, California. They can help guide you through the complicated process of recovering for your injuries and get your life back on track. Call them at (424) 248-2700 or visit them online for a free case evaluation.

Citywide Law Group
12424 Wilshire Blvd Suite 705
Los Angeles, CA 90025