What happens when a Driverless Car is in a Car Accident?

What happens when a Driverless Car is in a Car Accident?

As you may know by now Google driverless cars have become “legal” in that the Google AI driver is now considered a driver. This is a decision made my the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration or NHTSA. This raises a lot of questions as to what the future may look like if one is in a car accident.
Some experts had estimated that in 15-20 years 90% of the vehicles on the road will be driverless or will have some form of assisted driving. The upside to driverless cars is that traveling will be cheaper, safer, and easier. The obvious downside would be that you don’t have someone to directly communicate with the driver, and you will be entrusting sensors and programming with your life. Moreover, most people will feel uneasy, at least at first, having a program or AI controlling a vehicle. Driving is a dangerous activity, whenever we stepped foot into another person’s vehicle we implicitly charge them with the duty that they will be safe.

Will Google’s driverless car be safe?

Short answer: It should be. As a personal injury attorney that handles car accidents for the last 31 years this issue is of great interest to me.  It could be the case that a driverless car will be safer if all cars on the road where automated. However, what happens when an automated vehicle is in an accident with a human driver? Google claims that their cars could drastically reduce the amount of accidents because 94% of accidents involve human error. Google also claims that “its self-driving cars have caused exactly zero collisions in the 1.2 million miles of autonomous driving they’ve done since the project started in 2009.” The Google spokes women went on to say that “We publish the details of all crashes we’ve been involved in on our website each month, and there’s a clear theme of human error and inattention.” So, does this mean that a Google driverless vehicle will never be at fault? Certainly not, however when an accident does occur many complex legal issues will inevitably arise.
 However, when people are injured in motor vehicle accidents involving driverless vehicles, like Google’s car. We will see two cases instead of one. In a stereotypical car accident the party at fault may be sued as a result of their negligence. If there is a driverless car involved we may see two lawsuits, one against the party that may have been negligent, and the other against the company that manufactured the vehicle or driverless technology that runs the vehicle. This type of litigation, is very expensive, very time-consuming, and will make it more difficult for an aggrieved to plaintiff to have their day in court.
The chart below demonstrates how a driverless vehicles could change what options an injuries person has if they are in a car accident.
The first party is the Plantiff or injured party, the second party is the Defendant who we will presume they are at fault.

(AI = Driverless vehicle)

  • Human rear ended by a Human
  • Negligence action filed against an insurance company
  • Possible product liability action e.g. airbag defect. Usually not a factor.
  • Human rear ended by by AI
  • Product liability action: Defective design/engineering/programming
  • AI rear ended by a Human
  • Negligence action filed against insurance companies
  • AI v. AI
  • Product Liability only.
This is only the beginning, we may see evolutions in the law or evolutions in Way motor vehicle accident cases are handled.
Predictions on What this will all mean:
The widespread use of driversless cars will bring about the constriction of the motor vehicle accident case load that the courts have today. As a result, a lot of personal injury firms will shrink and or transition into other lines of tort related litigation. This, overall will be a good thing if it means that fewer people are injured in motor vehicle accidents. Driverless cars will also mean fewer/smaller auto insurance companies. Fewer health insurance claims, ideally cheaper premiums, but I doubt that. Fewer body shops, or salvage purchasers. Car manufacturers may shrink as well.  Overall, there will be a massive change across many industries and it’s only a matter of time.

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