​Your Legal Liability and Your Self Driving Car

self-Driving-CarSelf-driving cars are no longer the fodder of science fiction stories. While certain types of automation have been in vehicles for years (think adaptive cruise control), some automakers like Tesla have taken it to a new level. Tesla’s Autopilot has been the focus of media attention in recent years, but what many people don’t realize is that Mercedez-Benz, BMW, and Volvo have also installed similar systems in several of their models. As technology advances, the day is coming where a car will require little or no human intervention – and that day is rapidly approaching.

Benefits of Self Driving Cars

Once you get past the sci-fi hype, the practicality of self-driving cars is obvious. They don’t get distracted, they don’t text while driving, and they don’t have a few drinks then get behind the wheel. Considering that 1,161 people are injured and 8 are killed every day in the United States due to car crashes that involve a distracted driver, this technology could save billions of dollars. However, when you consider the 28 people who die every day in the US due to drunk driving, it could be a life saver.

Just how much can we trust cars that can drive themselves? Can they really prevent human error in the driver’s seat? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that the majority (90%) of car accidents occur because of human error. Some researchers believe that self-driving cars could significantly lower traffic fatalities.

Levels of Self Driving Technology

The NHTSA published their Automated Vehicles Policy which defines several levels of vehicle automation:

  • Level 0 – No Automation – The driver is in complete control of the vehicle at all times.
  • Level 1 – Function-Specific Automation – Certain functions are automated, such as lane guidance, cruise control, and automated parallel parking. The driver is still responsible for controlling the vehicle.
  • Level 2 – Combined Function Automation – Multiple and integrated control functions are automated. Adaptive cruise control with lane centering is one example. The driver is still responsible for monitoring the road but can disengage from the operation of the vehicle at times. However, the driver must be available to take control of the car at any time.
  • Level 3 – Limited Self-Driving Automation – Under certain conditions, the driver can yield all control, relying on the car to monitor safety critical functions and determine when the driver should resume control.
  • Level 4 – Self-Driving Under Specified Conditions – Under certain conditions, the vehicle is able to perform all driving functions.
  • Level 5 – Full Self-Driving Automation – The vehicle is completely autonomous and requires no human intervention at all.

Who is Liable when Technology is Autonomous?

Determining the legal liability in an accident involving a self-driving car is rather complex. There are several parties that are involved, including the driver, the manufacturer, even the software engineer. Autonomous technology has opened the door for some serious legal debate. It isn’t as simple as charging a driver when it was essentially a robot that was driving. There are several things that must be considered, such as the vehicle’s level of automation, the level of the driver’s engagement, and whether or not there was a design flaw or failure.

Many experts who are weighing in on the subject believe that a self-driving car accident could potentially be classified as a product liability issue. This would place the liability squarely on the shoulders of the car manufacturers since the crash could be considered a catastrophic product failure. This would require proof that there was a design flaw and the software failed at what it was intended or was reasonably expected to do.

When a Self-Driving Car is in an Accident Who Pays?

In a “typical” car accident, the driver who is found at fault, the one who caused the accident, is the one who is responsible for paying for any damages. When there is a self-driving car involved in the accident, there becomes a potential third party – the manufacturer. The question of who pays can become very complicated because the driver may not be completely at fault. This would mean multiple lawsuits and could mean years of litigation for the plaintiff. It could be a very long time before they receive adequate compensation for injuries, property damage, and loss.

Investigators will have to determine the degree to which the driver was operating the vehicle versus the degree to which the software was operating it. Then liability would have to be split according to the degree of operation for each party. However, if no design flaws are present and the software did not fail, then the driver who was at fault would likely bear the full brunt of the liability. In such case, they could be responsible for paying in the event of an accident.

Where do We go from Here?

The technology is still very new and there are many implications. Insurance companies, lawmakers, and even the manufacturers are still scrambling to keep up. The laws that are made now will pave the way for increasingly autonomous technology in the future. That is why great care is being taken for every decision regarding self-driving cars. Some of the areas that are impacted include:

  • Car Manufacturers – Should proceed with extreme caution when guaranteeing the efficacy of the software by clearly stating that it does not avoid all accidents. If they are promoting their technology as superior to human ability, that may increase their liability. It is also worth noting that as technology advances, expectations of that technology’s ability to perform will increase.
  • Insurance Companies – Policies may contain different or specific verbiage regarding self-driving cars. It could also affect how policies are priced and even the definition of driver could be changed.
  • Lawmakers – May need to revise laws to better address self-driving car accidents. One potential area is to base liability on if the technology was intended or expected to exceed the actions of a human driver acting in a reasonably prudent manner when attempting to avoid the accident. Another consideration is the capability of the detection software in avoiding the accident.
  • Legal System – Courts at all levels will have to prepare for cases that may be extremely convoluted as liability may not be readily apparent. Regulations and policies will need to address how to best streamline the legal processes so that plaintiffs are not locked in litigation with manufacturers for years.

At level 0, 1, or 2, it would seem that the driver is liable in the event of a crash, since at that level a human is expected to be participating in a significant portion of the driving. However, it isn’t always cut and dry. Right now, the courts are taking self-driving car accidents on a case by case basis. Lawmakers are writing more focused laws though; as quickly as technology is advancing, they have no choice.

Contributed by Bronx accident attorney Ivan Diamond (

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