Who Is Liable If A Self Driving Car Causes A Fatal Accident?
Crashes that involved vehicles using automated driving systems killed 11 people in four months in 2022, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. While this number represents just a tiny fraction of the more than 40,000 people who die in traffic accidents in the United States every year, the increasing popularity of self-driving vehicles raises concerns about safety and who is responsible when these vehicles cause traffic deaths.
Liability in Self-Driving Accidents
Several parties may be responsible for self-driving vehicle accidents.
All of the vehicles with self-driving capability that are currently sold to consumers in the United States require drivers to remain alert and be ready to take over control of the vehicle. Additionally, drivers of AVs must follow all traffic laws, including laws that make it illegal to operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
However, sometimes drivers do not pay attention which can lead to accidents. Because all AVs currently available to drivers in the United States require human drivers, those drivers are liable for accidents that their vehicles cause. As fully automated vehicles become available, the law may adapt to accommodate them.
Software and Hardware Designers
AVs rely on software and hardware to operate. If the software or hardware in an AV fails to operate correctly and causes a crash, the designer of the software or hardware could be liable.
Manufacturers of vehicles can introduce defects when assembling vehicles. If a manufacturing defect causes an accident, the manufacturer may be liable.
Commercial Vehicle Owner
A variety of commercial vehicles, including taxis and long-haul trucks, are in testing for deployment on U.S. roads. Companies that own commercial AVs that cause accidents may be liable.
Factors That Contribute To Self-Driving Vehicle Accidents
Multiple factors can contribute to self-driving vehicle accidents.
The most common system errors are failures to properly identify objects, people, vehicles and hazards in the roadway by the autonomous vehicle driving system. For example, in 2018, a self-driving vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian who was pushing a bicycle in a crosswalk. The vehicle incorrectly identified the pedestrian as a vehicle and then a bike.
In 2019, an AV that failed to identify when it was getting too close to a vehicle in front of it rear-ended a pickup truck, killing a passenger. AV crashes can also happen because the vehicle fails to properly identify the roadway, such as the AV that veered off the road and crashed into a barrier, killing the driver, in 2019.
In all of the above accidents, the human driver in the vehicle failed to take action to avoid an accident. In two cases, the drivers were looking at their phones. In the other, the driver failed to notice that the vehicle was approaching another vehicle until too late. Researchers have found that human error is the cause of 99% of AV accidents.
Though the user manuals warn drivers that AVs can not fully operate without human supervision, the advertisements used by companies that sell the vehicles can lead consumers to believe that vehicles are more capable of operating autonomously than they are. This may cause human drivers to fail to pay appropriate attention while operating an AV.
Level of Automation
Different AVs are capable of different levels of automation. The industry classifies AVs into six levels based on how much the automated system controls the vehicle.
Level 0 – No Automation
At this level, technology in the vehicle provides assistance through driver warnings, lane assist and emergency braking. However, the driver is in control of all vehicle functions at all times.
Level 1 – Driver Assistance
Vehicles in this category provide either adaptive cruise control or steering assistance, but not both. Drivers of these vehicles must be ready to disengage automatic driving at all times.
Level 2 – Partial Driving Automation
This is the highest level of automation currently available to consumers in the United States. At this level, drivers may use both adaptive cruise control and steering assistance but must pay attention and be ready to take over at all times.
Level 3 – Conditional Driving Automation
Several manufacturers have level three cars in production, but they are not yet available in the United States. These cars can drive themselves when the human driver chooses to engage the system. However, the human driver must still be ready to take over.
Level 4 – High Driving Automation
AVs at this level do not need a human driver. These are preprogrammed vehicles that travel specific routes and can not operate in poor weather conditions. There are a few driverless taxis at this level, but no vehicles that are available to the general public.
Level 5 – Full Driving Automation
AVs at this level will be able to operate anywhere and in all weather conditions. Humans in these vehicles will be passengers only. Vehicle designers are still developing this technology and it will not be available for several more years.
States govern what types of automated vehicles are legal on their roads and what the requirements to operate them are. Michigan currently allows the testing of all types of automated motor vehicles and the deployment of on-demand automated motor vehicle networks.
Michigan requires operators of AVs to have a license but does not require the operator to be in the vehicle. All AVs must have liability insurance. Additionally, manufacturers of some types of AVs must assume full liability for accidents, rather than operating under Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance system.
Problems With Self-Driving Cars
The main issue with currently available self-driving cars is that drivers do not respond as quickly to warnings from a self-driving vehicle as they respond to changing conditions when operating the vehicle themselves. This happens for several reasons.
Mental Processing Time
When you drive and you notice things, such as brake lights coming on, it takes some time for your brain to process the information and make a decision about what to do. When you are not actively controlling the vehicle, it takes additional time for your brain to process what is happening and respond.
When using self-driving cruise control, you may be resting your foot further away from the brake than you otherwise would when controlling the speed of the car yourself. This extra distance that you must move your foot to get to the brake may increase stopping time.
Distraction is the leading cause of AV accidents. Drivers who should be monitoring the vehicle closely may be looking at their phones or otherwise distracted. Once they realize something is wrong, it may be too late to prevent an accident.
Get Help With a Fatal Self-Driving Vehicle Accident
As self-driving vehicles become more common and technology evolves, the law must evolve with it. Determining liability in a self-driving vehicle accident can be complex. The attorneys at Mike Morse Law Firm are up to date on the newest technologies and changes to Michigan law that impact accidents that involve self-driving vehicles.
If you have lost a loved one in a self-driving vehicle accident, contact us at (855) 645-3946 to schedule a free case evaluation. Our attorneys can help you identify who may be responsible for the death of your loved one and assist you with seeking compensation from the responsible parties.