Driverless Car Accidents: Who Is Liable?

Driver error causes most car accidents. Using automation to remove the element of driver error should offer significant improvements in traffic safety and save lives. Numerous companies in California are working to develop driverless or autonomous vehicles. Many issues remain to be resolved involving these vehicles, including who is liable in the event of a crash.

If you’ve been involved in a crash with a driverless vehicle, talk to a Newport Beach car accident lawyer right away. The California personal injury attorneys at Sam & Ash, LLP have decades of experience representing injured people. We have collected more than $400 million in total compensation for our clients. We’ll work closely with you to identify who is liable for your injuries and help you seek full compensation to get back on your feet.

To learn more about our services, contact our Newport Beach office for a free initial consultation.

How Do Self-Driving Cars Work?

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has written regulations to allow the development and testing of autonomous vehicles on California roads. A number of manufacturers have received permits and are in the process of developing self-driving cars.

Driverless cars use radar, video cameras, light-detecting sensors, and computer hardware and software to detect what is around the vehicle. The data from all the sensors is fed to the car’s internal processors, which use special algorithms to detect the location of other vehicles and intersections and react accordingly.

At this point, nearly all autonomous cars and trucks are still required to have a human driver who can take over the operation of the vehicle in the event of an emergency.

When everything’s working correctly, the technology powering driverless vehicles allows them to anticipate and react to potential emergencies much more quickly than people can, theoretically reducing the chance of a crash.

Recent Accidents Involving Driverless Vehicles

autonomous driving car and digital speedometer technology

There have been several notable accidents involving driverless vehicles in recent years. At Yosemite National Park in California, one particular fork in the road seems to have caused five crashes involving self-driving Tesla vehicles. In Tempe, AZ, a self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian as the individual stepped into the vehicle’s path at night and the backup driver failed to react.

As driverless cars become more common, these accidents may increase unless regulators and vehicle manufacturers take proper precautions.

California Self-Driving Car Laws & Regulations

The state of California issued the state’s first autonomous vehicle deployment permit in December 2020. The permit went to Nuro, Inc., which makes autonomous delivery vehicles and other products. Nuro’s autonomous vehicle deployment permit allows the company to operate its cars commercially in designated areas of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, located near the San Francisco Bay Area.

Nuro’s permit to operate autonomous vehicles in the Bay Area came from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Under CPUC’s new regulations, any company wishing to deploy autonomous vehicles must first obtain a Permit to Deploy Autonomous Vehicles on Public Streets from the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

As part of the criteria for obtaining a permit, the regulations require that the self-driving vehicle manufacturer provide proof that the manufacturer has liability insurance or financial resources to respond to a $5 million judgment for damages for personal injury or death.

How the NHTSA Classifies Autonomous Vehicles

The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) has six levels of classification for autonomous vehicles, based on recommendations from the Society of Automotive Engineers:

  • Level 0 — The driver handles all tasks with no assist from automation.
  • Level 1 — The vehicle includes minimal driver-assistance technology, such as power steering or brakes.
  • Level 2 — The vehicle includes partial automation, such as cruise control. The driver must still be in control at all times.
  • Level 3 — The vehicle can move without the driver’s control, but the driver must be alert and ready to take over at any time.
  • Level 4 — The driver must be present in the vehicle to input route information and have the option to take control in an emergency.
  • Level 5 — Full automation without a human driver present.

Who Is Liable for a Driverless Car Accident in California?

If you’re involved in an accident with a driverless car in California and the other vehicle is technically driving itself, the question of liability must be determined. This is an evolving area of personal injury law.

Several parties may potentially be liable for your injuries. These parties include:

  • The manufacturer of the autonomous vehicle — Autonomous vehicle manufacturers are responsible for ensuring their products are safe to use and that backup drivers are attentive. Manufacturers are financially liable when design flaws or manufacturing defects in their products cause preventable harm to others.
  • The driver of the autonomous vehicle — At this stage of development, most “self-driving” cars are still required to have a backup driver who can take over in an emergency. If the driver is inattentive, fatigued, impaired, or otherwise negligent and fails to intervene when necessary, the driver may be liable for an accident. The manufacturer may also have liability for the actions of an employee who causes an accident.
  • The designer of the self-driving vehicle’s software — Driverless cars rely on computer hardware and software to operate safely. A self-driving car might be perfectly fine mechanically and still cause an accident if there is unsatisfactory code or a glitch in the software. If the crash is the result of a software defect, whoever developed the software may be held financially liable for any resulting injuries.

Regardless of who is at fault, you will need attorneys who have the resources and experience to hold fully accountable those who caused your injury. If you have any questions about who may be liable for a crash involving a self-driving vehicle, talk to an attorney right away.

Contact a Self-Driving Car Accident Attorney Today

Accidents involving self-driving cars are a new phenomenon and seeking compensation for your injuries requires help from a cutting-edge, compassionate legal team. The Newport Beach self-driving car accident attorneys at Sam & Ash, LLP have the knowledge, experience, and dedication to hold negligent drivers and manufacturers fully accountable and demand the full compensation you need after a crash. You can learn more about our legal services by contacting our California office for a free initial consultation.