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What happens when a self-driving car causes an accident?

The literature surrounding self-driving cars is clear that the driver is ultimately responsible for the safety of the vehicle, even when operating on autopilot.

But what happens when the car puts the driver into an impossible situation? If the driver is paying attention but the car makes a sudden move that puts the driver in imminent danger, should the driver still be held responsible for the result?

Popular Science released an interesting article recently reporting on an accident involving a self-driving car. The self-driving car changed lanes on the highway from the center lane to the left, then “saw” the lane closing. Then, the self-driving car immediately went back to the center lane without knowing that a motorcycle had taken up that center lane.

Of course, the self-driving car collided with the motorcycle, causing serious injuries to the motorcyclist.

This accident brings up two important questions regarding this emerging technology:

First, this accident calls into question the alleged safety improvements offered by self-driving cars, one of the most prominent selling points of these cars.

Most real human drivers would have known enough to double check back before veering the car back into the center lane. If a self-driving car wouldn’t even “check” a lane before veering into it, there is a serious question about the alleged safety of these vehicles.

Second, there is a question about the liability. Should the “driver” of the automated car or the manufacturer be held liable for the injuries resulting from the accident?

The present case is particularly complicated. The driver attempted to regain control of the vehicle but was a split-second too late. He was grabbing the wheel as the car was striking the motorcyclist. From the description of the accident, it seems that the events happened very quickly. Apparently, the car put the driver in an impossible situation for maintaining safety – a situation that the driver himself arguably would never have put himself into if he was in control the entire time.

If the autopilot mode led to the accident, should the driver still be held liable for the accident?

With self-driving cars, the law will have to develop to make these determinations. As of yet, we don’t know how the law will come down in this area.

We will keep our eyes out on this developing area of law, and we will continue to stay on the cutting edge as we defend our clients in serious accident claims.