Legal liability in self-driving car accidents

Written on behalf of Abramson Smith Waldsmith LLP

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In an accident with most motor vehicles, blame can often be placed on one or both drivers, existing traffic conditions, vehicle safety issues, road safety issues or weather conditions. The issue of liability gets more complicated when dealing with self-driving cars that do not have a driver, when the self-driving car may or may not be at fault in the instance of an accident on California streets.

Self-driving cars are considered autonomous vehicles, and the state of California has proposed and revised a number of evolving regulations regarding autonomous vehicles. Operation and regulation of autonomous vehicles is still a new field continuously undergoing change as the technology advances and legislators discover new need for regulations covering particular instances, but the most recent version of proposed regulations only offers provisions regarding test vehicles.

However, proposed regulations do mandate insurance coverage for autonomous test vehicles, providing an outlet for recourse in the event of a collision with a human-operated passenger vehicle. Manufacturers are not allowed to operate autonomous test vehicles on public roads without an officially issued permit, and may also be liable if a nonpermitted vehicle engages with a human-driven vehicle. Manufacturers may also be held liable if they do not report any collisions on public roads within 10 days of the event.

Autonomous vehicles have been causing accidents during their growing pains since the moment they were released onto public streets. Take the example of a Google-operated Lexus SUV, which reports drove itself into the path of a public transit bus during its attempts to navigate around an obstacle blocking its path. Both vehicles were moving at relatively slow speeds, with the Google car driving at two miles per hour and the bus driving at 15 miles per hour.

The accident resulted in no injuries and only cosmetic damage to the Google car, but as autonomous vehicles become more popular regulations will continue to evolve to address the possibility of more serious accidents. Google published a statement accepting responsibility for the accident.

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith

Managing Partner

Robert B. Waldsmith

Robert J. Waldsmith

Partner, 1999

William B. Smith

William B. Smith

Partner, 1978

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