Who is Liable When Self-Driving Cars Crash?

Who is Liable When Self-Driving Cars CrashLaw can sometimes be slow to catch up to technology. The rights of businesses and parties are often left to judges and juries that may not have full understanding of new technologies that the general public may not even fully understand. If you search “cell phones and the constitution” online you will find that criminal laws are still trying to deal with text messages and GPS tracking, even though these technologies are years old. Like criminal law, injury and negligence law also can be slow to adapt its laws to emerging technologies.

Self-Driving Cars

One such technology that promises to create legal issues is the self-driving car. Although currently being tested by Tesla, Google has also tested the technology, and it is likely that as time goes on, these vehicles will become commonplace on our roads.

Ideally, taking the human element out of driving should reduce the number of car accidents on our roads. Unlike their human counterparts, computers in self-driving cars do not drive intoxicated, they do not get distracted, they do not drive underage, and they generally follow the rules that they are programmed to follow.

Accident Raises Questions

A recent accident has made the public take a second look at self-driving cars. Recently, a rider was killed while in one of Tesla’s self-driving cars. It appears that the technology in the car became confused when a high profile of a truck blended with the sky. As a result, the car’s automatic response to brake did not kick in.

This is a core problem with self-driving cars. On the one hand, they must be programmed to immediately brake to avoid collisions. On the other hand, the cars can not brake unnecessarily, as that would cause injury, as well. They are programmed, for example, to recognize that an overhead directional sign is not an oncoming car. But as is apparent with the recent accident, with the right angle and lighting, the car is not yet able to tell when it should and should not brake.

Products Liability Cases

When a self-driving car causes an accident and injures a passenger, who is liable? That is an unresolved legal question, but preliminarily, it looks like the matter would be handled like a products liability case.

Products liability cases are those for when products malfunction or are defective and injure people. We hear about these cases all the time. Jeep was recently sued due to a defect in its transmission system which the family of actor Anton Yelchin alleges caused his death. Numerous SUV manufacturers were sued in the 80s and 90s for the vehicles’ propensities to tip over on sharp curves. Pharmaceutical companies are sued often for products that cause health problems.

Products liability cases generally fall into two categories. The first is a manufacturing defect. This is when the product does not work the way it is supposed to; that is, the product comes off of the assembly line incorrectly compared to its brother and sister products. One example would be if a lawnmower you bought had a cut-off safety switch that did not work, causing injury. The switch works in every other similar lawnmower, it was just broken in yours. It was manufactured improperly.

The other kind of product liability case, and the one that a self-driving car lawsuit would likely fall under, is what is known as a design defect. This is when a product works exactly as it was intended to, but the design itself is inherently dangerous.

So, for example, all the SUVs that rolled over years ago were designed improperly, with a center of gravity that was too high or a wheelbase that was too narrow. It is not that any single SUV was defective, they all were, based on their design.

Here, there is no indication that the computer in the Tesla malfunctioned. It did what it was programmed to do. Thus, the issue would be whether the design or programming of the self-driving car was itself dangerous.

Solutions May Be Difficult

Sometimes, the design of a product has to be dangerous, and thus, the best solution is a safety workaround. Using our lawnmower example, a lawnmower will always have sharp blades whirling at high speeds. That can not be changed. So, they are designed with safety cutoff switches, protective covers for the blades, and other safety features.

It may be that a self-driving car, being a computer, will never be completely safe, and thus, experts are now discussing how to make self-driving cars safer, and how accidents can be avoided in the future with appropriate safety measures and precautions. Many advocate that passengers in these cars still maintain control of the steering wheel, and be alert of their surroundings. It is possible that driver overrides will be needed.

And, at least as of now, the injury rate in these cars is low enough that it is possible nothing needs to be done. Just because a product injures one person does not mean it is defective. Every day products are sold that injure people, but which millions more use every day without injury.

In many cases, courts must balance between how safe a product can be made, how much the public needs the product, and the necessity of requiring additional safety measures. It is likely that this will be a balancing act that a court will one day have to apply to the self-driving car.

If you have been injured by a product that you think did not work the way that it should have, or was defective for any reason, do not guess at who may be negligent. Contact attorneys with the technical and legal expertise to analyze these issues. Call the attorneys at Brill & Rinaldi for a free consultation to analyze your product liability case.