Self-driven cars are quite new technology. So new, some people still don’t realise they even exist yet, believing them to be something that only really exists within the realms of science fiction. Nevertheless not only do such things exist, they’ve been proven to be highly reliable and exceedingly safe methods of transportation. However, like anything else they are not infallible and can still wind up in accidents. Such a thing raises an interesting question: if a computer is driving the car, then who exactly is liable for any damages caused?
A Lesson from the Past
Surprisingly enough, the idea of a car owner pleading in court that his car was responsible for an accident is by no means new. As far back as 1969, one car owner tried to claim that he wasn’t actually driving his car at the time of an accident he was involved in: his car was, after all, on cruise control. The ruling judge of the matter was unconvinced of the case. In his words, “A motorist who entrusts his to the control of an automatic device is no less responsible for its operation”.
The precedent this ruling sets suggests that, even if their car is being operated by some automatic system, a driver is still ultimately responsible for his car should it be involved in an accident. However at the same time it’s been nearly fifty years since that ruling has passed, and automatic devices have grown much more sophisticated since that case was settled. As such, many may ask the question as to whether that precedent should still stand.
Intelligent Cars, Responsible Drivers
At present, there are no hard numbers about the safety and reliability of self-driving cars, at least nothing that any sensible person would be willing to bet money on. What little we do have, is a report on their own Google Car project, which has currently clocked 1.7 million miles – 1 million of which was entirely driverless. During this time, Google reported only 7 crashes, all of which resulted in only minor damage and no injuries. They also reported that, in all accidents, the cause was human error on the part of other drivers, not the car itself.
At present there’s no real way to independently verify these claims – all documentation about the recorded accidents has so far not been released – so trying to figure out an exact outcome is going to involve a lot of guesswork and speculation. However, there are certain things we can use to help formulate an idea as to how a legal case involving a driverless car might play out.
Traditionally, responsibility is determined by the amount of control a given individual has over an object. So, to use an example, a shop owner’s control over the shelving in their store, how they’re stacked, and how often they’re maintained, means they have a lot of responsibility for them in the event that they fall onto a customer. However, a customer’s control over their own behaviour means that if they climb onto the shelves, their responsibility supersedes that of the store owner. In a driverless car, in which the human pilot can opt to turn over their control of driving over to the vehicle’s software, means that control is equally shared between man and machine. However, our desire for neat resolutions in our legal system do not allow for such ambiguous answers about shared responsibility. Ultimately, we need someone to blame.
One way to settle the blame game is to consider the actions of the manufacturer instead. After all, they were the ones who designed the car and were supposed to take into account any sort of failsafe measures and safety features. If they’ve advertised a driverless car as being safe to use, only for it to be responsible for an accident, then they’ve essentially failed in their duties as a manufacturer. Just as a car that is found to have faulty brakes in its design can leave the company open to lawsuits, so can a company whose software leaves it incapable of responding adequately to an accident.
However, this isn’t very satisfactory. A software programmer can’t foresee every possible circumstance that may result in an accident. They can only programme a limited set of responses to unusual or potential dangerous stimuli, such as something suddenly darting out across the road. Plus, there’s still the matter that even if it’s self-drive, it’s not true to say it’s entirely driverless either.
Currently, it would seem that legal precedent places the majority of responsibility at the hands of the driver. This is well established not just in the cruise control case of 1969, but also in the legalities surrounding pilots and aircraft. Most commercial airliners actually spend the majority of their time under control of an autopilot, with human pilots simply there to handle landings and take-off, and to supervise the flight. However during accidents, it’s ultimately the human pilot who bears the brunt of the responsibility. Whether they were actively in control or not, they’re considered to be in ultimate control of the vehicle.
The same logic applies to self-driven cars. Even if the car is automated, the human driver is still perfectly capable of reasserting control of the situation and preventing an accident.
Alternatively, consider the actions of the second driver. Assuming that the test results about Google Driver are accurate, it would seem that in most instances the fault of the accident may lie with them. However, there is an alternative place on which to lay the blame. The manufacturers of the self-driving car in the first place.
There’s, unfortunately, no real to know for certain how a legal case will pan out should we find ourselves in a situation where a self-driven car is involved in an accident. This is very new technology, and the public and the courts are not quite sure yet how to respond to it. However, based on past legal cases of a similar nature, it seems safe to say that the driver will still bear at least some of liability.
As such, if ever you decide to acquire a computer-driven car yourself, don’t get complacent. You’re still responsible for your own safety, as you are the safety of those around you on the road.
If you are involved in this type of accident, you’ll need to seek legal action. Make sure that you find the right attorney to represent you. Finding the right representation is time consuming, but if you take advantage of the free consultations that most attorneys, like David Heil, offer, you will be able to know whether or not an attorney is right for you and your incident.
About the author:
Christian Mills is a family man and freelance writer who passionately enjoys sharing his tips for a healthy and safe lifestyle. He also contributes articles and insight into laws and regualtions, and what rights you as a person have.