Cruise Controls? Self-Driving Cars and Personal Injury Law

In May 2016 a single car accident made headlines across the country. In Williston, Florida, 40-year-old Joshua Brown, who was behind the wheel of a Tesla Model S, crashed into a tractor trailer that was driving across the highway, perpendicular to oncoming traffic. The truck driver was not injured, but Brown was killed.

What made this fatal crash especially noteworthy was that the Tesla had its Autopilot system activated at the time of the accident, but neither the driver nor the system noticed the tractor trailer until it was too late.  

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that to avoid false braking triggers, the car’s radar would have ignored anything that looked like an overhead road sign. He added that while Autopilot was constantly improving, it was not yet perfect and Tesla drivers had a duty to remain alert.

There have been other collisions involving Uber and Google self-driving vehicles, but none resulted in serious damage or injury. Yet. If or when self-driving vehicles become more mainstream, it may become more common for crashes to be caused by software miscalculations rather than driver error or negligence. This shift in liability raises numerous questions about fault in personal injury cases.

How Personal Injury Claims are Made Today

At present, a personal injury claim typically arises from a motor vehicle accident when a loss or injury can be attributed to driver negligence. For example, your car is rear-ended by someone who is texting and driving, or t-boned at an intersection by another driver who failed to yield the right of way—in both instances, you may have a claim against the other, at-fault party. Their insurance company will investigate, review the damage, and offer you a settlement. You can either accept it or hire a personal injury attorney to renegotiate the offer or represent you in court.

What Does the Future Hold?

With the advent of self-driving cars and autopilot, the court and insurance processes are certain to change, given the fact that driver negligence and liability is central to most personal injury cases. If there is no human driver making bad decisions, who will be found negligent? Potential defendants may include:

  • The car manufacturer (e.g. Tesla)
  • The software designer
  • The companies that manufacture cameras, radar, and other components that allow the vehicles to drive autonomously
  • Mapping companies
  • Municipalities that fail to maintain traffic lights, road signs, and lane markings that the software uses to make traffic decisions

With so many potential defendants, proving fault after an accident will be a lot more complicated than it is at present. Current law only allows a personal injury claimant to blame an automobile manufacturer by proving negligence under product liability law (which does not yet address driverless vehicles). Volvo, Mercedes, and Google have all publicly stated that they will assume full liability if one of their cars crashes while in auto mode, but some suspect that these statements are merely marketing ploys. Elon Musk has stated that Tesla will not take responsibility for accidents unless it can be proven that a design defect was the cause.

At the time this article was written, the current administration under President Trump has said that the federal government will maintain a hands-off approach to regulating the development of self-driving cars. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao is a proponent of streamlining the development and production of autonomous cars.

The roads contain enough potential risks, with distracted drivers being a regrettably common one. When drivers start relying on autopilot systems to prevent accidents and those systems fail in any way, tragedy can result. If you are injured as a result of self-driving technology failure, contact a personal injury attorney like Ryan Cox & Associates today. We will fight to ensure that your well-being is not a casualty of progress.

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Ryan R. Cox & Associates, LLC

Ryan R. Cox & Associates, LLC is a litigation law firm that represents individuals and families in serious personal injury and wrongful death claims throughout Missouri. We help people who have been injured in all types of accidents—including car or truck accidents, motorcycle accidents, slip and fall accidents, and much more. Whether your injury is something that can cause long-term issues like a brain injury or spinal cord injury, or it is something you’ll likely make a full recovery from, we are here to help.

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