Who Is Liable When Technology Takes A Wrong Turn?

car with no driver

Since Google gave the world its first glimpse of a driverless car in action on a Nevada roadway, questions about autonomous auto accident liability have continued to grow. Coupled with the fact that the Trump administration has supported the National Transportation Safety Board in lifting some of the stricter regulations established by the previous administration, the nation's court systems may be challenged with adjudicating cases sooner than later. In fact, the N.T.S.B. recently concluded a yearlong investigation into the fatal crash of a Tesla Model S being operated on Autopilot on a Florida roadway outside Williston.

That particular case involved an Ohio driver whose car crashed into a commercial truck and trailer at nearly 75 mph. 40-year-old John Brown was operating his vehicle using his Tesla Autopilot when the system failed to identify the white truck against a background of a bright sky. Brown was believed to be watching a movie at the time. The N.T.S.B. concluded that Tesla's technology did not fail but that the automaker may not have implemented enough warning and safety devices to have prevented the accident. This evidence did not dismiss the fact that Brown was using the Autopilot on a non-approved roadway.

As for legal actions, in this case, the deceased had agreed to contract terms that require Tesla drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times. In fact, Brown had ignored warnings from the Autopilot system that were instructing him to do so. Since the driver had used poor judgment in road choice and failed to heed repeated warnings, the carmaker's failure was only a lack of adequate lock-out when the technology is misused. Since that accident, Tesla has installed safeguards that will disengage Autopilot when warnings are ignored and after three times require the vehicle's engine to be turned off and restarted.

Autonomous technology will continue to grow, and it will be interesting to see how driver and manufacturer liability laws are applied to future cases. On the one hand, auto manufacturers are trying to produce safer vehicles to reduce the number of lives lost due to distracted, unreasonable, drunk or impaired drivers. Conversely, why should a human be liable when they were not in control of the vehicle? Naturally, the hope for mankind is that technology will save a major percentage of the nearly 35,000 victims of auto fatalities each year.