Before there was such a thing as self-driving (or "driverless") cars, the legal landscape was pretty clear on vehicle safety and the liability of drivers, owners and manufacturers for injuries and damages sustained in vehicle accidents. Now that self-driving cars have become a reality, however, questions abound over who is responsible for enacting safety measures for these vehicles, and how fault is established when a self-driving car causes an accident. In this article, we'll answer (or at least shed some light on) these questions.
At the federal level, Congress has so far been unsuccessful in its effort to enact uniform safety legislation for the testing and deployment of self-driving cars. As a result, several states have proceeded to pass their own safety regulations, and these impose varying degrees of responsibility (and liability) on manufacturers and owners of self-driving cars. For examples, see:
In practical terms, this lack of a national safety standard means that if you're injured in an accident with a self-driving car, your legal recourse against the manufacturer and/or owner of the vehicle may vary depending on the state in which the accident occurred.
In a typical car accident with a human driver at the wheel, the driver engages in some sort of negligence -- such as running a red light -- that causes a collision with another car. In this situation, the negligent driver is primarily liable for the injuries caused by the collision.
In some states, the car's owner may be liable as well, as long as the car was being driven with the owner's knowledge and consent. And in situations where the collision is caused by some manufacturing defect in the vehicle itself, anyone injured may be able to sue the manufacturer on a "product liability" theory of fault. So, there could be three potential avenues of recourse when you are injured in a conventional car accident: the offending driver, the car's owner, and the car's manufacturer (putting aside the potential financial responsibility of the respective car insurance carriers).
With self-driving cars that have no "driver" to sue, it would appear at first blush that your recourse is now limited to a suit against the car's owner, operator, or manufacturer. But this is a rapidly-evolving area. In many situations, until the technology advances to the point where self-driving cars are fully autonomous, a human is still required to sit in the driver's seat so that he or she can take over the controls as conditions present themselves -- or in the alternative, a human remote operator is required to monitor the vehicle's movement and take over as necessary. Which brings us to our next topic...
As we saw in March 2018, when a self-driving Uber car struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, self-driving technology has not yet been perfected to the point where the car can sense, react to, and avoid a sudden and unexpected danger.
The upshot of this reality is that as long as self-driving cars require human assistance, those humans (whether sitting in the driver's seat or monitoring the vehicle remotely) will remain potentially liable if their negligence contributes to a car accident. And if these human drivers/remote operators are employees of companies like Uber, Google (Waymo), or another company engaged in testing self-driving vehicles, the companies will be on the legal hook under established principles of employer liability for a car accident.
With regard to a manufacturer's liability, some states (including Michigan) have passed laws that deem the automated driving system to be the "driver" or "operator" of an autonomous vehicle for purposes of determining conformance to applicable rules of the road. These states require manufacturers of these vehicles to assume fault for each incident in which the automated driving system is at fault. Under this theory, if the automated driving system's "negligence" causes an accident, the manufacturer assumes that negligence, and the legal liability that comes with it.
While this may give some comfort to persons injured by self-driving cars given the "deep pockets" of vehicle manufacturers, it's still necessary to prove fault. And precisely what this means -- whether showing some kind of flaw in the design or development of the automated driving system, or retrieving the vehicle's event/data recorder to prove that the vehicle ran a red light -- will have to be sorted out as cases make their way through the nation's courts, and the legal possibilities evolve into legal principles. Stay tuned.