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Who's Responsible for Accidents Involving Autonomous Cars?

by Precise Leads

November 7, 2017

Insurers are struggling to determine who’s at fault when a driverless car crashes.

Although autonomous vehicles are still an uncommon sight, several major automakers are now designing and testing their own driverless models. Audi’s A8, for example, will soon be able to drive itself at forty miles per hour, while Ford plans to sell its first autonomous cars to the public by 2025.

While self-driving automobiles should, in theory, make the country’s roads safer by reducing the risk of human error, some widely reported crashes involving them have raised questions about their safety on the open road. These accidents have also caused some debate over the future of auto insurance. Since auto insurance usually covers the driver, it’s still unclear whether the user of an autonomous car or its manufacturer should be liable for an accident involving it. The uncertainty could force insurers to adapt their traditional models to accommodate self-driving automobiles.

Liability Shifts to Manufacturers

As driverless cars become more common, collisions will still happen, but since their users won’t be operating them, insurers will increasingly shift liability to the cars themselves and the systems that pilot it. As a result, an autonomous car crash claim will likely be decided by product liability law, leaving the car’s manufacturer at fault as well as the providers of the vehicle’s software. To prove product liability, an insurer would need to know whether the car’s system was defective, and whether the defect caused the crash. Since Takata was held responsible for accidents involving its airbags, there is legal precedent for this.

Car manufacturers are apparently willing to accept responsibility for the driverless car’s safety. “Carmakers should take liability for any system in the car,” Volvo’s Vice President of Government Affairs Anders Karrberg told a congressional committee earlier this year. “If there is a malfunction to the [autonomous driving] system when operating autonomously, we would take the product liability.”

In addition to product liability, manufacturers could be found negligent if a driverless vehicle has hidden defects or wasn’t designed to minimize the risk of an accident or injury. Manufacturers may also be at fault if they misrepresent a driverless auto’s safety features, since drivers could be led to believe that autonomous cars require no human oversight.

Drivers Not Completely Off the Hook

Just because a car can drive itself doesn’t mean the person behind the wheel bears no responsibility. In some circumstances, the driver has the option to override the vehicle’s autonomous functions or share the operation of the car. In those instances, liability for a crash may be split between the driver and the car, further complicating the issue of who’s at fault.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) developed a tiered classification structure last year to determine the extent to which a car is automated, ranging from full human control at level zero to complete automation at level five. As a blog on Lexology.com notes, using cruise control would be considered level one, while utilizing parking assist features, lane departure warnings, and automatic brake components meets the criteria for level two. An accident occurring while the car operates at level two or below would be deemed the driver’s fault.

While the NHTSA supports SAE’s classifications, the system is only a set of recommendations without legal authority. As autonomous cars become increasingly popular, states will need to provide insurers with a blueprint for settling claims by devising regulations that clearly assign liability should an autonomous car crash.

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