Legal Responsibility in Automated Vehicle Crashes
April 28, 2021
Self-driving vehicles, also known as automated or driverless cars, are becoming more commonplace. With their increasing popularity and growing numbers comes several questions about who and/or what, exactly, is responsible when a car accident happens. In light of the recent deadly Tesla crash that took place near Houston, Texas, many people are wondering if the liability falls on the driver, on the automated technology, or in some cases, on both.
In basic terms, autonomous vehicles are capable of operating and sensing the surrounding environment with limited human involvement. This means that some automated vehicles can park without the driver being in control, whereas others can navigate and drive with fairly hardly any human engagement at all. For example, Tesla’s autopilot feature allows the vehicle to steer, brake, and accelerate in its lane, but it also requires a certain amount of driver supervision. Creators designed the technology to require the driver to be in the driver’s seat with his or her hands on the wheel at all times by employing sensors that monitor the amount of pressure the driver applies to the steering wheel. It is important to note, however, that there have been several reports alleging this feature may have dangerous design flaws.
The answer concerning who or what is responsible if a self-driving vehicle crashes is not as straightforward as you may think. Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has taken some steps toward making rules for automated vehicles, none are currently cemented in place. If federal law does not govern automated vehicles, the question then becomes whether or not state-level legislation takes the lead with licensing laws, which essentially identify the technology system as the driver of the vehicle. At the time being, many of these questions remain largely unanswered.
Different Levels of Automation
What features does a car need to have to qualify as an automated vehicle? There are actually six different levels of automation, all of which take varying degrees of responsibility for various critical control functions, such as steering, braking, throttle, and driving. Levels zero through two are so-called driver support levels, which means that the driver is responsible for the vehicle’s primary controls. For levels three through five, however, the automated technology is in control of most features, but not without driver support. The NHTSA reports that the six levels are:
- Level 0 or no automation: No autonomous features are in play aside from giving warnings (i.e., coming close to an object) and providing momentary assistance.
- Level 1 or driver assistance: Although the driver is in control of the vehicle, the technology still provides either steering or braking/acceleration support.
- Level 2 or partial automation: The vehicle has combined automation features, such as steering and braking/acceleration support. The driver must still be engaged in order to use these features.
- Level 3 or conditional automation: The driver has to be ready to take control of the vehicle if necessary but is not required to be in control of monitoring the surrounding environment.
- Level 4 or high automation: The driver has the option to control the vehicle, but the automated system is capable of performing all driving functions under certain conditions.
- Level 5 or full automation: The technology is capable of performing all driving functions in all conditions, but the driver retains the option of taking control of the vehicle.
Questions about Liability
There seems to be a never-ending list of inquiries concerning liability in accidents involving autonomous vehicles. Until legislation catches up and provides a clear legal precedent for car crash victims, there are several important questions that we still need to ask. Here are just a few examples of these questions:
- After investigating the recent Tesla crash, police officers said that no one was sitting in the driver’s seat when autopilot was being used. (Remember: Tesla’s autopilot tech is allegedly unusable if a driver is not engaged and attentive.) Tesla representatives, however, claim that the police’s findings are incorrect and that one of the occupants (two in total died in the deadly crash) would have had to be in the driver’s seat in order to use the autopilot feature in the first place. If an occupant was able to “trick” the technology into thinking he or she was in the driver’s seat but was in fact not, is the technology liable or the occupant? Is the technology responsible for catching this error?
- How safe is safe enough when it comes to these emerging self-driving technologies? Cars with autopilot features boast being able to drastically reduce car accident personal injury and fatality rates, but just how safe do we need to require them to be before they become more widely available to the public?
- Did an accident result from a technological error, such as a malfunctioning sensor or a defect in the system, or from a driver’s mistake? Can both the technology and the driver be liable for the incident?
Automated Vehicle Car Accident Victims
The good news is that although there is not a clear legal answer to liability for accidents that involve self-driving vehicles, victims still have options when it comes to filing a legal claim for their injuries and other damages. Since most of the automated vehicles on American roadways require some degree of driver involvement to operate, it is more likely than not that most of the responsibility for the accident would fall on the at-fault driver. That does not mean that the manufacturer has no liability, though. If a vehicle had a defective steering or braking system, for example, the manufacturer would be liable for contributing to the collision. If the automated features that a driver was using were faulty or designed defectively, the technology itself, as well as its creators, could be liable as well.
As you can see, determining liability in a car accident is a complicated process. This is why it is always a good idea to speak with an experienced personal injury lawyer who can examine your accident from every angle and identify who or what was responsible, along with any other relevant factors. If you were injured in a crash involving an automated vehicle, someone at our firm can help guide you through the process. If you would like to learn more about filing a legal claim, contact a representative online now.
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