94% of last year’s auto accident fatalities were the result of human error. Many anticipate self-driving technology will greatly improve safety.

When Google’s self-driving car changed lanes to avoid a road hazard, colliding with the side of a bus in February 2016, it brought to light an important legal question: Who is liable when a self-driving car is involved in an accident with another vehicle?

In October 2015, the CEO of Volvo announced that the company would take full responsibility whenever a Volvo is in autonomous mode, adding that Volvo is “one of the first car makers in the world to make such a promise.” While other carmakers have followed suit by publicly declaring that if one of their self-driving vehicles is at fault for a collision, they will accept liability, Google failed to take full responsibility for the 2016 crash, admitting instead that it bore some — but not total — liability for the crash, “because if our car hadn’t moved there wouldn’t have been a collision.”

Even Automated Systems Can Fail

Accidents involving self-driving cars will likely be treated no differently than accidents involving two active drivers. After all, modern vehicles already include an arsenal of automated features operated by hardware, software, and/or mechanical connections, including:

  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Lane-departure warnings
  • Rear-view cameras
  • Brake assist
  • Collision-avoidance systems
  • Electronic stability control (ESC)
  • Phone suppression technology

Ultimately, these systems allow drivers to decide when they want to control their vehicle and when they want to relax and let the automobile do the work. Automated systems can fail, however, and if any of them does, the party responsible for that failure will most likely be held legally responsible for a collision.

The same will likely be true when a driver has placed the car in autonomous mode, allowing algorithms to make decisions regarding how the car reacts in any given situation. If the algorithm makes a decision that is inconsistent with the applicable standard of care and causes an auto accident, liability could be found with the manufacturer, not the driver.

While requiring automakers to compensate the victims of accidents with self-driving cars may seem like an appropriate legal solution, it is also a bit of a contradiction: If autonomous vehicles are considered safer, why should their manufacturers be asked to take on greater responsibility than the makers of driver-controlled cars?

Negligent Drivers May Pass the Buck

According to Forbes, 94 percent of the 35,000 car accident fatalities in 2015 were the result of human error, particularly drunk driving. When control over automobiles is taken away from humans and turned over to technology, safety will very likely improve.

Self-driving technology may prove to be successful in improving automobile safety, but ironically, it might also relieve careless drivers of liability for collisions, instead forcing automakers to take greater responsibility.

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