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Who Is Responsible for a Self-Driving Car Accident?

By Hess & Nghiem on March 26, 2021

Over the past few years, self-driving cars have become more common. While not widely available to the public at the moment, they may be making their way to the market very soon — and test models can already be found on our Orange County roadways.

The real question is, when these new cars collide with another vehicle or pedestrian, who is at fault?

What Makes Self-Driving Cars Dangerous

Back in 2018, California modified the Autonomous Vehicle Tester Program, allowing autopilot features in new models to be tested without a human inside the car. While autopilot seems to be the path of the future, that does not make it safe to test around other drivers or pedestrians.

A human driver can use judgment to determine whether to slow down, swerve, or come to a complete stop. This kind of snap judgment routinely prevents accidents and saves lives. At the current level of technology, autonomous vehicles are simply incapable of quick decision-making. While these computers can be programmed with special sensors that allow them to “see” nearby vehicles and pedestrians, they simply do not have the capability to match human intuition.

However, sometimes the human is still at fault. For example, a woman was killed in Arizona in 2018 by one of Uber’s self-driving SUVs. While the car was equipped with sensors meant to allow the car to avoid such collisions, the sensors become confused, unable to tell is the woman crossing the street was a pedestrian, bicycle, or vehicle. This meant that the computer could not determine her predicted trajectory, and thus did not stop, slow down, or swerve in order to avoid the collision. The test driver inside the vehicle, who could have seized control, was watching videos at the time.

An alert human driver should have been able to take one look at the woman and swerve to avoid her. It was a desert road and there was no danger of hitting another vehicle in another lane. This is what can happen when self-driving cars are tested on the open road before they are ready.

Determining Liability

So, after someone is injured or killed by a self-driving car, who could be held liable? In most accidents, the negligent driver is the one responsible, but if the car was driving itself, then who would be held accountable?

In the Arizona Uber case, the company was found “not criminally liable” after a court investigation. But the “test driver” may still be on the hook, since she was distracted at the time of the crash. Uber cancelled its self-driving program in Arizona after this; and settled with the victim’s family for an undisclosed amount. The family then filed a $10 million lawsuit against the City of Tempe, which appears to be pending.

In theory, there are two parties that could be considered liable for an accident with a truly autonomous vehicle. The first is the person inside the self-driving car. Even if the car has an autopilot, the person who allowed the car to drive itself would be liable if the car then strikes someone. This person would be considered the car’s “operator,” making him or her the one responsible for any resulting accidents. As in our Arizona example, the person is expected to regain control of the car in the event of an emergency. If he or she does not do so, it could be considered negligence.

On the other hand, the car’s manufacturer may be liable for collisions caused by the auto-pilot. When a car is defective, the party responsible for those defects, usually the manufacturer, is liable for the damages it caused. That concept could hold true for self-driving cars; however, these are untested waters.

Self-driving cars are emerging technology, and cases being filed for collisions caused by these cars are few and far between. As this technology continues to grow and accidents happen, the case precedents surrounding them will become clearer. If you or someone you love has been injured by a “self-driving car” in Orange County, then you need help from Santa Ana personal injury attorneys. HN Injury Lawyers has years of experience helping collision victims, and we are ready to tackle a self-driving car case. To tell us about your accident, call our firm at (657) 333-5726 today.

Posted in: Car Accidents