Remember the cartoon The Jetsons and their spaceship cars that flew around? Back then, flying cars or cars that drove themselves seemed too unrealistic to be true. And while we may still have all four tires on the ground, driverless cars aren’t just a fairy tale any longer.
The theory supporting driverless cars is based on the fact that when you remove human error and unpredictability from driving, it becomes much safer, accident numbers are greatly reduced, and individuals suffer fewer injuries and fatalities. But what if this technology isn’t quite road-ready yet? Driverless cars are being tested on the road in a handful of U.S. cities such as Boston, Las Vegas, and Chandler, Arizona, but the technology isn’t as developed as the technology inventors would like us to think.
In 2017, a self-driving shuttle vehicle was launched in downtown Las Vegas. The intention was to show how driverless vehicles could be utilized for public transit. But the very first day of that project, a semi-truck backed into the shuttle, putting it out of commission. The driverless shuttle’s software hadn’t been programmed with what to do in this particular situation. There were no injuries and little damage, but the incident did serve to raise the question: who is responsible for an accident if it is caused by a driverless vehicle?
Researchers from the University of Michigan have studied the first one million miles that have been driven by driverless vehicles – most of them Google cars, but other vehicles were included, too. What they found was that there were more accidents per mile with driverless vehicles than with human-driven cars, but every single accident was the cause of the other vehicle – the one driven by a human.
What this means is that as long as there are human drivers on the road, driverless cars will be at a disadvantage.
One of the main problems with self-driving cars is that they simply drive too well. They drive “by the book”, stopping completely at every stop sign, and obeying all speed limits. This puts these vehicles at risk of being hit by less attentive human drivers. But let’s say a driverless vehicle does cause an accident. Who’s fault is it? Who’s negligence caused the accident? Of course, we can only hypothesize at this point, because it’s going to depend on the situation surrounding each collision, and we simply don’t have enough data yet. We can realistically assume, though, that a defect in vehicle parts that results in an accident would find the manufacturer at fault, and a logic error in the vehicle’s software would find the software company at fault.
We’re not yet to the point where cars can drive around on their own without a human behind the wheel. The driver is still required to be alert in case the car misjudges an obstacle or finds itself in a situation that it’s software isn’t prepared for, as in the Las Vegas incident. In the case of a collision between a driverless car and a human-driven car, the injured party could claim that the human in the driverless car was at fault because they failed to respond to the vehicle’s miscalculation.
It all comes down to negligence. And in order to prove negligence, the injured party (or their attorney) must show four things:
The manufacturers of the systems that are put in place within a self-driving car to enable that car to take control away from the human driver could face liability when an accident occurs based on that control. Every manufacturer holds the responsibility to create a product that is safe, and if the manufacturer’s technology was being utilized in the driverless car when the accident happened, it could be said that the flaw within the technology was at fault.
Within the context of a driverless car, if an injured plaintiff was able to prove that the car was unable to replicate human driver behavior, or understand how to navigate in specific driving conditions, even though it was performing as intended, the manufacturer of the control systems could be held liable.
As self-driving cars become more and more common on our roads, we’re bound to see big changes in how insurance claims are handled. You can rely on the legal team at Sevey, Donahue & Talcott to keep you up to date on the newest legislation and regulations surrounding driverless cars in California.