Driverless Cars Continue Raising Questions on Product Liability

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Crash Involving Autonomous Uber SUV Raises More Questions on Driverless Cars and Product Liability

Last month a self-driving Uber SUV collided with a Honda CR-V at an intersection in Tempe, Arizona. The driver of the Honda was in the middle of an intersection as she waited to make a left turn across three lanes of traffic at a light that was about to turn yellow. After seeing that the first two lanes were backed up with cars, the driver began to cross the intersection at 20 mph. When she approached the third lane, a self-driving Uber SUV continued through the yellow light without hesitation at approximately 38 mph on a street with a posted speed limit of 40 mph. The cars collided and the Uber ended up on its side. Thankfully no one was hurt.

Who is Liable for the Crash?

In this case, the driver of the Honda was held liable for failing to yield to oncoming traffic. Some witnesses did not come to the same conclusion. If it weren’t for existing case law, liability would be much more difficult to determine in these “yellow-light” car crashes. And with self-driving cars we don’t have a strong set of existing case law to look to for guidance.

Not the First Crash and Won't be the Last

The Tempe accident isn’t the first publicized case of an accident involving a self-driving car. Last year a Tesla Model S driving in autopilot collided with a tractor-trailer when the car’s cameras and sensors failed to detect the vehicle in front of it. The Tesla driver was killed. However, after extensive testing there were no defects to be found in the Tesla software.

Technology Expanding the Pool of Potentail Liable Parties

These two crashes have raised an interesting question about determining liability in accidents involving self-driving cars – who is at fault when software is operating the vehicle? In today’s global economy, car parts come from all over the world. With the evolution of technology in automobiles, software has become a crucial component in determining how a car operates. Now there are companies whose business is to provide car services at the click of a button. These companies, like Uber, are increasingly incorporating driverless cars into their fleets. With more people and companies involved in the manufacturing, design, and use of a single car, the list of parties potentially liable for accidents continues to grow.

What Are Some Questions Being Raised?

Let’s say you were in an accident while riding in an autonomous car that malfunctioned after the software contracted a virus or became hacked by an outside source. Who would have to pay up? Is it the insurance company covering the rider? Howmuch is the rider covered for? Insurance is based on risk assessment, but how do you assess the risk of someone’s diving habits if a computer program is now a part of the equation?

Then there’s the matter of the third party hacker. Should the software engineers be held liable for their failure to protect the vehicle’s systems? Maybe the hacker is held liable for any and all accidents caused by their breach of the software and its systems? Or maybe the hacker got ahold of software access through a ride share company like Uber or Lyft?

How Will the Law Deal with These Questions?

Due to the lack of existing case law regarding self-driving vehicles, the answers to these questions remain unclear.  As more state governments begin to allow autonomous vehicles on the road, we’ll inevitably begin to see more accident liability theories tested in the courts. From there, we can only hope the law can guide this exciting new technology toward making our roads a safer place. 

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