The self driving car crashes: Who is at fault?


Self-driving cars are the wave of the future - at least, that’s what every technology publication seems to be saying these days, and honestly, it’s tough to argue with the idea. Many experts believe self-driving cars could become a common sight on the roads in as little as five years. Some are pushing off their predictions to 10 or 15 years down the line, but they all seem to agree that self-driving cars will become a permanent fixture at some point. But how safe are they, and when accidents do happen, who will be at fault? This is the ongoing legal issue many are still struggling to come up with an answer to, and with pressure mounting to find a solution, various ideas have been floated over who holds liability.

One of the goals instigating the push for self-driving cars is that fully automated vehicles could one day eliminate car accidents completely. However, this worthwhile dream took a bit of a hit after a recent study was released from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Institute showed that self-driving cars are five times as likely to get in accidents as the traditional kind.

The study did come with some caveats, though. For one, self-driving cars are still in an experimental phase, with tests occurring on roads throughout the country. Second, all of the recorded accidents were not the fault of the self-driving car but rather a conventional vehicle running into them. Third, the total number of crashes only equalled eleven. The accident rate may be more frequent compared to traditional vehicles, but it’s still a low number. And fourth, any reported injuries were minor since the accidents occurred at low speeds.

However one interprets these findings, it’s important to understand that accidents involving self-driving vehicles will happen when the road is full of them, even if crashes do end up being rare. When it comes to finding who’s at fault for an accident, there are a few schools of thought on the subject. First, let’s look at the operator of the vehicle. Since the car is automated, many believe that the driver shouldn’t be at fault for what could be an equipment malfunction. In this case, if a self-driving vehicle runs into another self-driving vehicle, by definition the operators would have had no control over what their cars did. Even so, the issue becomes more complicated when considering that some states have pushed for regulations mandating that control of a self-driving car be given back to the operator under certain conditions (snowy roads, for example). Should control be handed over and the driver still fail to operate the car properly, they may still be held at fault for any accident.

The second possibility is the manufacturer of the self-driving vehicle being held responsible. After all, if they are the ones making the vehicles, why shouldn’t they accountable when a technical issue is to blame for a crash? This all boils down to holding automobile manufacturers to a set of standards, much like already happens when it comes to safety issues. The concern then stems from how safe will manufacturers make their vehicles. There are already varying levels of safety as seen in the numerous tests conducted on each vehicle. The same will have to be done for each self-driving vehicle a manufacturer produces. If they are at fault, any accident would be a matter of a product liability claim.

The other possibility is to hold the designers and suppliers of the self-driving technology responsible for any crashes. Self-driving tech is complex and requires a lot of research and development, so designers need to ensure it works well enough to avoid accidents. Both drivers and manufacturers are putting a tremendous amount of trust that the technology will work properly, so any failure in that regard should be placed on the developers. That is perhaps why Google and other tech giants are doing a great deal of testing before unleashing self-driving cars onto the public.

In reality, fault may be found in any combination depending on what happens when an accident occurs. With advances in big data analytics, software defined storage, and cloud computing, self-driving cars are closer to becoming a reality, but these sorts of issues still need to be worked out before mass acceptance takes place. Until the law takes into account this new technology, it may be a while before self-driving cars truly become mainstream.

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Mike Byrom
22 Mar 2016, 11:25 a.m.

A motoring magazine in the latest issue posed a valid question if two children run into the road, and on the sidewalk there are three children, and there is insufficient time to stop, what choice would the car make ?