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The Liability of Self-Driving Vehicles

On March 18, 2018, an Uber autonomous vehicle struck and killed a woman crossing a dark street in Tempe, Arizona. In early May 2018, a self-driving minivan of Waymo was involved in a crash in Chandler, Arizona. The first known fatality from an autonomous vehicle came in 2016 when one of Tesla’s autonomous vehicles failed to sense a tractor-trailer crossing the highway near Williston, Florida.

In light of these incidents, who is liable? Is it the car manufacturer? The software designer? The sensor manufacturer? These questions present a challenge to the legal world today.

Emerging Technology

Traditionally, it has been simple to figure out who was at fault in an automobile crash. It has been either the fault of a driver or involves product liability if it was a manufacturing defect (like the Takata airbag cases). However, with the advent of autonomous vehicles, these principles must be reexamined as liability becomes more difficult to determine because vehicles are becoming more complex. These new vehicles contain technology that is transforming the driving experience.

Some of the other companies putting these automated vehicles into use include Apple, Delphi, GM, Honda, Ford, Daimler-Bosch, Volkswagen Group, BMW-Intel-FCA, Aptiv, and PSA to name a few. However, these companies require components to run their advanced autonomous vehicles.

Companies like Velodyne and Quanergy are manufacturing the sensors, called Lidars, that use laser technology to map out the surrounding area. Cruise, Nauto, and Mobileye are using smart cameras instead of Lidar sensors to assist in navigation. The computer chips which power these vehicles are being produced by companies like Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Samsung.

However, creating an autonomous vehicle is only half the battle, as the product is useless if states will not allow them to operate on their roadways.

State Responses

So far, 27 states have enacted legislation or passed an executive order dealing with the issue of autonomous vehicles. Some states, like Arizona, Washington, and Florida, have already enabled operation or testing of autonomous vehicles on state roadways.

In 2018, Waymo is bringing its fleet of vehicles to San Francisco to test out one of the most difficult roadway systems in the United States, complete with narrow streets, hills, fog, and heavy road and pedestrian traffic. Aptiv, through Lyft, is already shuttling passengers to certain pre-ordained destinations as part of its test run in Las Vegas.

Even Disney is getting in on the action with plans to launch driverless shuttles to ferry guests around the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Despite test programs already rolling out in cities across the United States, the question remains: Who is responsible when an accident occurs?

Legal Liability Principles

By using traditional legal principles, it would suggest there are several entities that could be at fault when an accident occurs involving an autonomous vehicle. This will require an examination of two scenarios, present and future; one where there is a safety driver in the vehicle and one where the vehicle is completely autonomous.

In the scenario with a safety driver, the company that owns the vehicle will likely be at fault because of the safety driver’s negligence under the theory of respondeat superior. However, liability could be shared with the company manufacturing the vehicle components if the sensors are found to be malfunctioning or faulty under product liability principles.

Now, some of this liability can be offset if the other person involved in the accident is found to be contributorily negligent; this will depend on the contributory negligence laws of the jurisdiction.

In the scenario with no safety driver another layer is added. Liability can likely further be shared with the software engineer if it determined, as with the Uber fatality, that the software was set at an insecure level. Liability may even extend to the owner of the vehicle if they fail to download recommended software updates from the manufacturer that may improve safety or close potential hacking vulnerabilities.

If the vehicle’s software is hacked and an accident occurs because of this, the hacker may also share some responsibility. These other entities that could share liability may even shield the manufacturer from liability depending on the severity of the issue.

Current driving laws are centered around the driver as the operator of the vehicle but new laws will need to be passed to accommodate these changes to the driving landscape.

Insurance Rates

With these liability questions comes questions about adjustments to insurance rates. Just as elements like the make, model, and year of a vehicle affect the insurance rate, so too might the company designing and updating the software of the vehicle affect insurance rates.

Software companies developing the brains of these vehicles may find themselves being rated based on the performance of their work in these vehicles. There are many issues left to work out as more and more autonomous vehicles begin to roll out onto the nation’s roadways. It is important to begin brainstorming these issues before they catch the public off guard.

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