Self-Driving Car Accident Responsibility

A number of technology companies in collaboration with auto makers are at various stages of development and testing of self-driving cars. The idea is that since human error contributes to most vehicle accidents, self-driving vehicles could potentially save lives.

The desire to remove human error from the roadways is certainly understandable. But when self-driving cars are involved in accidents, the issue of legal responsibility for the crash remains to be determined.

Our North Carolina auto accident lawyers routinely help injured victims of drunk drivers, distracted drivers, and just reckless individuals who do not pay attention. We can help determine questions of liability for car accidents, no matter how complicated the accident.

Problems Automation Seeks to Avoid

Human error is responsible for a significant percentage of all auto crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In 2015, more than 35,000 people lost their lives due to car crashes throughout the U.S.

There are huge economic costs to car crashes, from lost productivity in the workplace to property damages. Self-driving cars are seen as a potential answer to many of these issues.

Meanwhile, fatal accidents involving autonomous vehicles have raised concerns about liability.

Recent Self-Driving Vehicle Crashes

An Uber autonomous car accident in March claimed the life of a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, as described in an article in USA Today.

In that crash, a woman pushing a bicycle at night across a multi-lane road stepped out of the darkness into the path of the Uber vehicle and was struck and killed. The Uber vehicle operating on auto-pilot failed to recognize the pedestrian and stop. A backup driver who was in the Uber vehicle appeared to have his eyes diverted from the road in the seconds before the collision and did not intervene.

The Tempe, Arizona police chief who viewed the videotape of the accident said it would have been difficult to avoid the collision because the pedestrian stepped from out of the shadows into the roadway.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident. Meanwhile, Uber has temporarily suspended its testing program.

Who is Responsible When an Autonomous Vehicle Hurts People?

When two cars collide under normal circumstances, North Carolina law holds the at-fault party responsible for all harms and losses that he or she caused. When a vehicle is technically driving itself, the question of responsibility still must be determined.

In general, liability rests with one or more of 3 options:

  1. Human Error
    Human error is still the first place an injured victim should look. Even the best technology cannot protect the public from negligent human operators, if the human driver has ultimate control of the vehicle. Could the backup driver have done something to prevent the crash? If a driver fails to remain alert while at the wheel or misuses the technology, then the driver may be responsible for a crash. In some accidents, the operator of another vehicle may make an error.
  2. Vehicle Malfunction
    Sometimes technology simply fails. As anyone who has tried to operate a regular vehicle knows, brakes can go bad, engines can fail, and parts can be defective. If a driverless vehicle is being operated properly and as designed but somehow fails, then the manufacturer may be the appropriate party to hold responsible for any injuries that the faulty machine caused.
  3. Lax Government Oversight
    A government regulatory agency that permits self-driving vehicles to be tested on public roads may potentially be responsible for allowing experimental vehicle testing on public roadways if the testing exposes the public to unreasonable risk of harm.
  4. Improper Design or Manufacturing
    In some cases, the design of the vehicle is defective. For instance, there have been traditional vehicles that were manufactured with centers of gravity that were too high, leading to rollover crashes. Does an autonomous vehicle have a design defect in the auto-pilot technology that the manufacturer should have recognized?

Self-driving vehicles will raise new questions of liability.

How is Insurance Handled in Autonomous Vehicle Collisions?

It’s important to remember that the manufacturer of a product is still responsible for what harm that product causes. At present, there are no vehicles in use on American highways that operate entirely without human intervention. In other words, a human driver still have some control and responsibility for guiding an autonomous vehicle at this point in time. At least for the time being, the operator of a vehicle and the manufacturer are primarily responsible for what the vehicle does.

In time, consumers should expect to see higher levels of autonomy. That may lead eventually to fully-autonomous vehicles that do not require a backup driver. That is many years in the future.

If society reaches that point, then the liability for an accident would likely shift more to the manufacturers who build and design the auto-pilot technology. Until then, there will likely be a shared responsibility.

Types of Autonomous Vehicles

There are six levels of vehicle automation, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

Level 0: Driver does everything. No automation.
Level 1: Some vehicle assistance, such as power brakes or steering.
Level 2: Partial automation, such as cruise control. Driver must still remain in control.
Level 3: Vehicles drives without the driver in control, but driver must remain alert and ready to assume control at any time.
Level 4: Driver is optional, but must be present in order to put in route information and has the option of taking control.
Level 5: Full automation does not require a physical driver to be present in the vehicle.
This type of vehicle will likely not have a steering wheel or gas pedal.


North Carolina Injury Lawyers are Here to Help

If you have suffered a serious injury or lost someone due to another’s negligence, you deserve skilled and aggressive legal representation from the beginning of your case. The law limits how long you can wait to bring a case against those responsible, so don’t wait to seek help.

The experienced team at Hardison & Cochran stands ready to help with even the most challenging cases. Contact us to schedule a free case evaluation today.

About the Author

Hardison & Cochran was established based on the conviction that a modern approach was essential in today’s legal landscape. Focused on delivering exceptional results through a skilled team, the firm prioritizes personal attention, integrity, and client needs. Each attorney, paralegal, and staff member is dedicated to this vision. Over three decades, with Ben Cochran overseeing daily operations, the firm has evolved into a highly respected practice.