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Who Is Liable When a Self-Driving Car Causes a Crash?

Google self driving car painted by artist Anna Vaught of Austin, TX

Vehicle technology is becoming more and more advanced. The day when the roads are full of cars which drive themselves - without a human behind the wheel - may be closer than ever before.

Companies such as Google have already developed self-driving prototypes that are in the testing phase. While these vehicles are being designed with advanced auto safety features which are aimed at preventing accidents, they are not flawless.

In fact, Google's self-driving vehicles have been involved in at least 16 accidents to date, including two crashes here in Austin, according to monthly car accident reports for the Google Self-Driving Car Project.

All of which raises the question: When a self-driving vehicle causes a car accident, who can be held liable?

Manufacturer Liability or Personal Liability?

Google's self-driving vehicles have been involved in several accidents to date, including a couple of crashes here in Austin.

As the Insurance Information Institute points out - reporting on a study by the RAND Corporation - many believe that the focus will shift from personal liability to manufacturer liability as more self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles hit the roads and become involved in crashes.

In other words, when a car accident is caused by human error, the victim may pursue a claim based on the driver's negligence. This is the basis for most auto accident claims that are filed today in Texas and elsewhere.

However, if the car was on autopilot and essentially "driverless" at the time of a crash, the driver may not have been negligent. Instead, the cause of the crash may have been a defect in the vehicle. It follows that liability would fall on the manufacturer of the vehicle.

How Will Self-Driving Cars Impact Insurance?

If liability is to shift, an impact on insurance is sure to follow. The RAND study suggests that while a need for drivers to carry liability insurance will still exist, the coverage could change over time. Other types of insurance such as comprehensive coverage may actually become less expensive.

As the federal government becomes more involved in the regulation of driverless cars, the other issue to consider will be how states hold on to their autonomy in regards to insurance laws.

While states today have the ability to set their own auto insurance requirements, more consistency across states lines may be necessary as self-driving vehicles proliferate. For states like California and Texas, where drivers often cross the U.S. border into Mexico, the issue could become even more complicated.

Another potential evolution in insurance - and perhaps the most confusing one to grasp - is the idea that robots should be treated like persons and insured liked persons.

An article in The Atlantic suggests that "If we are dealing with robots like they are real people, the law should recognize that those interactions are like our interactions with real people."

How Do You Determine Liability in an Autonomous Vehicle Crash?

In today's world, when a crash happens, it almost always involves two actual drivers (if not more). Liability falls on the shoulders of one of these drivers.

In a world where a crash involved a driverless vehicle and a vehicle driven by a human, however, liability may be harder to determine. Rather than relying on a driver's statements, insurance companies may begin to more heavily weigh information provided by electronic control modules in vehicles, otherwise known as "black boxes."

It is also possible that the burden may fall on the manufacturer's shoulders to prove that its vehicle did not cause the crash, rather than the driver of the other vehicle proving that it did.

"Eventually, and inevitably, the carmakers will have to take the blame," an article in Scientific American concludes.

Volvo and some other manufacturers of autonomous vehicles have already declared that they will pay for all injuries and property damage caused by their self-driving cars. (Volvo's model is expected to debut in 2020.)

The fact that manufacturers of semi-automated vehicles or fully autonomous vehicles could be held liable if their vehicles cause an accident make senses. Today, if a vehicle was found to be defective, and that defect contributed to a crash, the automaker would be held liable. In this sense, product liability laws would not need to be rewritten to address self-driving vehicles.

But keep in mind: Automakers may not be eager to pay out claims. Those injured in crashes will still need to prove the extent of damages they have suffered. Negotiating with insurance adjusters may still prove to be as difficult as ever.

Could the Owner or Driver of an Autonomous Car Still Be Held Liable?

Certainly, situations will still arise where the owner or driver of an autonomous car may still be held liable. For example, if the driver decides to take the vehicle off autopilot and navigate the roads, the driver may be held liable if a crash occurs.

Additionally, if a vehicle required servicing or maintenance in order to perform optimally (as all vehicles do), and the owner of the vehicle failed to service the car, then the owner could be held liable if this failure contributed to an accident.

Whether a vehicle was driverless or not, liability can always be contested after a crash. If you are involved in a case in which liability is an issue, make sure to get help from an experienced Austin car accident lawyer. Contact Byrd Davis Alden & Henrichson, LLP, today to learn more.

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