What Happens When an Autonomous Car is in an Accident?

Autonomous cars

You’ve heard about Google’s now-famous self-driving car, and possibly you’ve been skeptical of how safe they may be on the road. Now that the autonomous cars have spent more and more time on the road, the cars have been involved in several accidents—reportedly all caused by the other (human) driver involved. As autonomous cars become more and more of an inevitability, you might be wondering, what happens if a driverless car causes a crash?

Google has been developing its self-driving car since 2009, and the cars have been on California roads using volunteers as “drivers” since 2012. As of Google’s October 2015 monthly report, the cars using their self-driving technology have driven over 1.2 million miles while in autonomous mode (meaning, the car is driving itself, and the test driver is not operating the controls). There are 23 Lexus SUV self-driving cars currently on the road in Mountain View, California and Austin, Texas, as well as 25 additional prototype vehicles in those cities. Additionally, both Volvo and Mercedes have begun publicly testing their own autonomous vehicles. The driverless cars are legally allowed on public roadways in only a handful states: Florida, Michigan, Virginia, Nevada, California, and Texas, as well as the District of Columbia. However, while entirely autonomous cars are being tested only in a handful of states, Tesla recently introduced a software update to thousands of cars already on the road nationwide which offers drivers a semi-autonomous “autopilot mode” setting. This allows for periods of hands-free driving and features such as automated lane changing after the driver has turned on a signal, or adaptive cruise control that automatically alters the car’s speed based on surrounding traffic.

Determining what laws govern these driverless cars is challenging, to say the least. Since testing is limited to a small number of states and a limited number of vehicles, state and local governments have had limited opportunity to determine how best to regulate the cars. Next year, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles plans to release a long-awaited set of regulations regarding self-driving cars, which will be the first set of laws designed specifically with autonomous cars in mind. Thus far, Google reports that its driverless cars have been involved in just over a dozen accidents, all of which were the fault of the other car. While Google representatives avow that it would essentially be impossible for their cars to cause an accident, if millions of these cars are on the road, glitches are bound to occur, which will bring up questions of whether an ensuing legal claim would be a product liability claim against the car’s manufacturer, or a negligence claim against the human driver for failing to intervene. Autonomous car manufacturers Volvo and Mercedes have stated that they will accept full liability for any accidents in which their self-driving cars are involved.

Additionally, these cars are still limited by nascent technology from being fully autonomous at all times. Earlier this year, Volvo announced that it would release 100 autonomous vehicles to volunteer testers in Sweden. Drivers of these cars, which look identical to manually-driven Volvos, were instructed that the cars could not be operated autonomously during a rain or snowstorm, and that the cars should be operated on divided highways only when first made available. While Volvo will require testers to operate the car in manual mode at least a portion of the time, Google has decided to focus on developing cars which make it impossible for a passenger to manually drive the autonomous cars. Google representatives state that it would be unsafe to require a driver who has not been paying full attention to the roadways – an intended benefit of the autonomous car – to suddenly become aware of a hazard and take over driving controls in an emergency. However, if a driver is able to assume manual control of the car and does not, and the car is involved in an accident, it seems possible that complex questions regarding the driver’s liability could arise. By the time the autonomous cars arrive on New York roadways, hopefully federal and state regulators will have established rules governing where to turn for drivers and pedestrians injured by driverless cars.

If you’ve been hurt in a car accident in the New York Hudson Valley, contact the experienced personal injury attorneys at Basch & Keegan for a consultation, at (845) 338-8884 in Kingston or (518) 288-5600 in Albany.