Who is Responsible for Injuries When You are Involved in a Collision with a Self-Driving Vehicle?

Written By: Attorney Sydney Abdallah

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In recent years, many large car manufacturers or specialty manufacturers – most notably Tesla – have begun exploring the automated driving experience.  One of the biggest advantages claimed by these carmakers is the added safety element that is believed to accompany automated driver functions.  It is thought that by eliminating the possibility of human error, these intelligent machines can drive safer and avoid many of the dangers that human drivers encounter.  For example, these automated programs are expected to react more quickly, focus on surroundings as a whole, instead of one having one area of focus, and anticipate outcomes that human drivers may not be able to.  However, with these developments come many new and complicated questions on who is responsible when a collision occurs with a self-driving vehicle.

If you were injured in a car accident, read more about what to do when you’ve been hit by a car.

 SELF-DRIVING, AUTONOMOUS, AND SEMI-AUTONOMOUS CARS: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?

The common terminology used when referring to cars that have driver-assist capabilities is usually “self-driving” or “autonomous,” which usually indicates that the car is capable of driving itself without any help from the human driver.  In actuality, this assumption is largely incorrect.

Automated cars are actually categorized into five levels based on the amount of human interaction needed to operate it.  Levels 4 and 5 are considered fully autonomous, meaning the car can completely drive itself without assistance from a person.  Essentially, the person in the car is no longer considered a driver, but instead becomes a passenger since they have no participation in the operation of the car.  Fully automated or self-driving cars are not available to the public at this time, but they are in existence.  They are currently being tested on limited public roadways with the hope that, one day, they’ll be safe enough to begin distributing. 

Cars that are considered levels 2 and 3 are what are actually on the road today.  These cars have a high level of driver-assist technology that provides automated help to the driver of the vehicle, but ultimately, the driver of the vehicle remains in control.  These semi-automated systems also require some participation and input from the driver to safely operate them, meaning the driver and the car are sharing the task of driving.  Functions like this can include parallel parking assist, speed control based on distance from objects, automatic braking systems, and the Autopilot capabilities advertised in vehicles like Teslas. 

So why do these differences matter when it comes to a collision involving a semi-autonomous vehicle?  These distinctions matter because they help us understand who may be at fault when an accident occurs while these driver-assist programs are engaged.

THE DRIVER’S FAULT

Because the vehicles on the roads today are actually only semi-autonomous, there is a strong argument that the fault still lies with the driver of the vehicle, just like it would in any other car accident.  Tesla has always maintained the position that the human driver is still behind the wheel and still bears full responsibility for any collisions that may occur.  This is regardless of whether the Autopilot function is engaged at the time of the collision or not. In Tesla’s owner’s manual, there are clear instructions that the driver’s hands are to remain on the steering wheel at all times, as well as instructions that the driver should still pay attention to the roadway and traffic conditions.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and many times, drivers tend to rely too heavily on the capabilities of the driver-assist functions.  They also frequently get a false sense of security when the Autopilot system is engaged, thinking that the level of attention required to operate the vehicle is now lower since the car is supposed to be driving itself.  However, as we discussed earlier, these are not “self-driving” cars and still require participation of the driver.

There have been numerous collisions over the last couple of years involving vehicles with semi-autonomous driver-assist features engaged.  In many of these, the data has shown that the driver of the vehicle was not adequately engaged in the task of driving.  Many times, the driver’s hands would be removed from the steering wheel for an extended period of time.  It was also not uncommon that the driver had actually begun to doze off or be asleep at the wheel at the time of the collision.  Because the driver still has a duty to be actively participating in the operation of the vehicle, despite the high-functioning Autopilot program, most wrecks involving self-driving vehicles will be the fault of the driver.

THE CAR MANUFACTURER’S FAULT

While the semi-autonomous vehicles on the road today still require some level of participation from the driver, there is a growing argument that the car manufacturers are also partly to blame for collisions that occur when the Autopilot program is engaged.  Multiple cases have been brought against Tesla under a products liability claim, asserting that the manufacturer failed to adequately warn the car owners of the dangers and deficiencies of the cars, as well as possible design flaws that make the program dangerous.

While the owner’s manual does discuss the need for the driver to remain alert and keep their hands on the wheel, there are shortcomings that are not easily seen by the operator of the car.  For example, the name of the program itself – Autopilot – tends to make drivers think the car is capable of driving itself fully.  Although these “self-driving cars” are not available to the public yet, people mistakenly think that the cars that are available to the public have this capability.  This leads to drivers relying too heavily on the driver-assist systems to a degree that these systems can’t live up to.  This, in turn, can lead to wrecks.

Another possible inadequacy of Tesla’s warnings to drivers is that these driver-assist programs are only supposed to be operated on certain roadways or in certain situations.  For example, in one Florida crash, the driver had the Autopilot program activated on a highway, but the program did not detect a tractor-trailer that had pulled across the highway in front of him and that was sticking out into traffic.  The vehicle maintained its speed and collided into the trailer, killing the driver.  Tesla stated that this Autopilot program was not intended for use on roadways that had cross traffic and could not adequately detect hazards like that.

There may also be issues in the design of the program itself, as far as its actual capabilities versus what it is advertised to do.  There is always the question of whether or not the technology either could have done something to avoid the collision and didn’t – or whether it actually caused the collision.  In the Florida crash referenced above, the National Transportation Safety Board released a report after investigating the crash and attributed blame to both Tesla and the driver of the vehicle.  While the driver did not have his hands on the wheel and was using the Autopilot program where it wasn’t designed to be used, the accident was also likely the result of lax safety regulations on Tesla and the premature release of this program to the public.

SO WHO IS REALLY TO BLAME?

While each case will be fact-specific and determined by exactly what went wrong, there is a possibility that both the driver and the car manufacturer could be at fault for a wreck involving a self-driving vehicle.  The best way to explore who is at fault is by consulting an experienced attorney who may help you examine the facts and determine which party should bear the responsibility.

If you are involved in a wreck with a vehicle while a semi-autonomous driver-assist program is in use, you should protect your rights and interests by contacting an attorney.

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If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident with a self-driving vehicle, do not hesitate to call Zinda Law Group for help. We don’t believe that accident victims should need to worry about being able to afford representation, which is why we use a no-win, no-fee policy—you don’t pay us anything unless we win your case.

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