Who Will be Liable for the Car that Drives Itself? – by Magda DeMoya Coyle

Magda CoyleWith the advent of the self-driving or autonomous car in the very near future, courts will likely be faced with many liability cases of first impression. Obviously, the question of ultimate liability will be at the forefront of any case. Presently, only high-end car makers such as Mercedes Benz, BMW, Jaguar, Volvo, and Audi are manufacturing these vehicles. Recently, BMW exhibited its self-driving vehicle prototype. Interestingly, within these cars, the seats swivel so that people, including the driver, can converse face to face while the car navigates on its’ own utilizing “recognition” software. Automakers estimate these self-driving cars will become a part of every manufacturers’ line of vehicles between 2020-2025.

When a person is injured in a car accident, no matter what the cause, the driver who is deemed at fault is most often held liable for the damages. However, drivers operating autonomous vehicles may find that liability shifts to the manufacturer of the vehicle if the car malfunctions. This shift in liability will likely significantly impact personal injury lawsuits. Currently, auto makers and component suppliers are lobbying for legislation to reduce their liability, as they argue it would be unfair for them to be held liable if a car crashed due to unforeseeable circumstances. The auto industry will also likely institute waivers of liability if the owner of the car modifies the vehicle in a manner that might affect the self-driving technology or fails to clear snow and dirt off the cameras and radar sensors. Likewise, state and city highway departments are lobbying against laws that would impose liability if they fail to maintain clear roadway markings necessary for lane guidance.

Auto makers are currently insisting that there be a driver behind the wheel of their forthcoming autonomous products. In doing this, there will be no question as to who is legally responsible for that automobile, autonomous or not. The liability and negligence laws may also remain the same. Although the autonomous car may accelerate, brake, and steer without human assistance, in order to avoid liability, the driver may have to be positioned to assume control should the operating system malfunction or fail. It remains to be seen whether the driver/operator of the car will be held liable or responsible for a car in self-driving mode that malfunctions and causes an accident. Thus, auto makers may need to initially accept liability until the laws and statutes surrounding the autonomous car evolve. Regardless of the party held liable, this new technology and new products, will profoundly impact personal injury cases.