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Self-Driving Cars and Auto Accident Liability

By Rheingold Giuffra Ruffo Plotkin & Hellman LLP

With the advent of self-driving cars, the question of who is at fault in a motor vehicle accident isn’t all that clear. 

According to Yahoo News, “The phrase ‘asleep at the wheel’ could soon lose all meaning as Tesla and other automakers push self-driving cars closer to reality.  CEO Elon Musk says select Tesla drivers could get their hands on “full self-driving” software as early as Oct. 9. The upgrade won’t make the cars truly autonomous, but Musk dreams that one day people will safely fall asleep on their way home in a Tesla.”

So, how do auto insurance companies and lawyers figure out who is at fault in a driverless vehicle involved in an auto crash?  Could the question of liability fall back on the manufacturer of the self-driving vehicle, making it more like a defective product case?  The honest answer is it’s too soon to tell.  The law has not kept pace with technology. 

The Society of Automotive Engineers uses a five-point scale to measure automation. A Level 1 vehicle can help out with either steering (like lane-centering assistance) or speed (like adaptive cruise control). A Level 2 vehicle can do both at the same time.

Level 2 vehicles are already available from automakers like Hyundai, Kia and Ford. And despite the name, the current version of Tesla’s “full self-driving” software remains at Level 2.

Level 5 vehicles (the asleep-at-the-wheel kind) could be commercially available by the end of the decade, says a report from the independent Victoria Transport Policy Institute. But they may not be affordable until the 2040s or 2050s.

These new vehicles are touted as much safer than those that are operated by human beings.  However, the question remains, what happens when the technology fails or there is a glitch in the system? 

Inevitably, this will change the practice of law and make for interesting new case law involving driverless vehicles. 

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