Who Will Be At Fault in a Driverless Lawsuit?

man reading instructions for automated vehicle

For most of us, we experienced an “Ah-ha” moment when we heard about Google's driverless car. The autonomous vehicle, a modified Toyota Prius, received the first licensure as a driverless vehicle in the United States when the State of Nevada issued a special red license plate to Google in May of 2012. Although headquartered in California, the Internet giant moved its autonomous car testing to Nevada after experiencing regulatory issues in its home state. Seeing the potential economic impact of attracting technology companies several other states including California, Michigan, and Florida also passed autonomous vehicle testing laws.

What may matter the most are the steps the Federal government will need to take in regulating driverless vehicles. Currently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has established five levels of operation including:

  • No Automation - A driver is in complete and sole control of the vehicle's brakes, steering, throttle, and power. And, is therefore solely responsible for safe operation.
  • Function Specific Automation - The driver has overall control but can cede limited authority such as cruise control or the vehicle can assume control to aid the driver with emergency braking or electronic stability of the vehicle.
  • Combined Function Automation - The driver is responsible for monitoring safe operations and is able to resume control on short notice when more than one autonomous feature is active.
  • Limited Self-Driving - The driver can cede full control but is expected to be available to monitor and resume control when the situation requires a transition back to full driver control.
  • Full Self-Driving Automation - The vehicle is designed to perform all driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.

Although current federal and state legislation is aimed at regulating autonomous vehicle testing, reinterpreting the definition of “driver” under government regulations is just one of the complex issues that will be difficult to do.

Current projections have upwards of 50 million autonomous vehicles in use globally by 2035. That means lawmakers will certainly be busy discussing how to handle a number of liability issues. Similar to drugs and medical devices, driverless vehicles have a broad application to benefit society by eliminating tired, drunk, or distracted driving. In addition, the impact on personal productivity could be overwhelming once time spent commuting is used for other tasks.

Following an accident, the plaintiff could sue the person who turned on the automated driving feature. The original vehicle manufacturer will likely have limited product liability as will the company that installs the autonomous hardware and software. If there is a design defect, the company that developed the technology may be at fault. Secondary issues such as hacking as well as the conclusions reached by onboard algorithms could play role in any litigation. Like all statutes dealing with complex liability issues, nothing will be settled until cases are presented and adjudicated in a court of law.