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Who is responsible for self-driving car fatalities?

As self-driving cars continue their march towards wider adoption, legal experts are just beginning to explore questions of liability. Who is responsible when a self-driving car crashes into a tree? Another car? What if someone is injured, or even killed? A recent case gives us a better idea of where things stand.

Who’s Really Driving?

From a legal perspective, the question of “Who’s driving the car?” is not as easy to answer as it sounds. 

One would think that the term “self-driving car” means exactly that: a fully autonomous vehicle that drives itself with no human intervention. However, cars like that are not currently allowed on roads. Instead, laws require that self-driving cars have a human driver in the driver’s seat at all times, ready to take the wheel if something goes wrong.

What this means is that at the moment of a fatal crash, there’s potential for a complex interplay between the human driver and the crash avoidance systems built into the car. Which one is truly at fault can become murky.

A Test Case Turns Fatal

This scenario recently played out in real life. Last year, the nation’s first-ever fatality involving a self-driving SUV occurred when Uber was testing its newest driving technology. The vehicle hit a pedestrian late at night as she pushed a bicycle across the road, and she later died from her injuries.

In the end, prosecutors declined to file charges against Uber. Their reasoning was that while the SUV had the necessary systems to detect unsafe situations, the specific ability for auto-braking was not enabled, as Uber wanted their human drivers to control emergency braking instead. Since the driver had been looking at her phone instead of the road, Uber was off the hook. Whether prosecutors decide to go after the driver is still an open question.

Had the auto-braking technology been engaged, we might have a different headline for this story. However, it illustrates the new questions that prosecuting attorneys must answer. Even if self-driving cars achieve the same safety record as their human counterparts, there is still plenty of room for catastrophic accidents. Humans, after all, are not the best drivers.

Many people surmise that self-driving cars will increase in popularity over the next 5 to 10 years. Does this mean that accidents, injuries and fatalities involving self-driving vehicles will also increase? Time will tell, but one thing is certain: While criminal matters are important in these cases, so are civil matters. Wells Law Group, P.A., will stay up-to-date on developments in self-driving and fully autonomous vehicles and how these types of personal injury claims should be addressed.

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