Drivers are expected to pay careful attention to the road and to make safe choices. If they fail to do so, they can be held liable for an auto accident and they can be made to pay for damages. But what happens when the person driving a car is no longer a person but is instead a computer system? Will the manufacturer of an autopilot system be held accountable if a computer fails in such a way that causes a crash to occur?
This is a question that is already becoming an issue, especially as a fatal accident occurred in a Tesla which was running on autopilot mode. It is a question that will need to be resolved by courts and lawmakers as driverless cars become more common.
Responsibility for Car Accidents When a Vehicle is Running on Autopilot
Current autopilot systems still place the onus of responsibility on the driver for collision prevention.
When a Tesla recently become involved in a fatal accident, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted an investigation. LA Times indicated NHTSA stressed that responsibility still belongs with the driver when it comes to collision prevention. NHTSA had also investigated other less serious accidents with Tesla's autopilot program and found driver behaviors like distraction to play a role in the collisions.
Tesla also made clear to drivers that they remained responsible for avoiding accidents even with an autopilot system running. Tesla's instruction manual and the screens on the autopilot system said drivers should be paying attention. The driver who was killed in the fatal crash unfortunately was likely not focused on what was going on around him. His Tesla drove underneath a big rig that was making a left turn on a highway, and he was killed in the accident. The big rig driver said that he heard Harry Potter playing at the time the accident occurred. This would suggest that the driver was watching a movie and not the road.
As long as autopilot systems are used only as a tool to assist drivers, drivers will retain ultimate responsibility for preventing collisions. However, Scientific American suggests that a shift could occur as driverless technology advances and autopilot systems start to replace drivers. As Scientific American explains: "When a computerized driver replaces a human one, experts say the companies behind the software and hardware sit in the legal liability chain-not the car owner or the person's insurance company. Eventually, and inevitably, the car makers will have to take the blame."
It remains to be seen how the law will actually evolve on driverless vehicles. Victims of accidents involving a driverless car need to understand what the current case law says about liability. Hiring an experienced attorney who is very familiar with this area of law will be vital to getting full and fair compensation for losses.