Articles, Cognitive Vehicles, Level 5 Autonomous Driving

The Lawyers Are Coming: A Look at Who’s Liable When Self-Driving Cars Crash

Driverless cars will take human drivers out of the equation, but there will still be someone at the wheel – a computer – that could crash. Who will be liable in this instance? Fleet owners? Automakers? Ride-hailing services? There are so many questions regarding how all this will shape the future of accident liability.

“Traditionally in automotive you’ve had mechanical issues,” said Raj Choudhary, an independent legal consultant in the automotive industry who previously served FCA and other major players in the space. “As vehicles become more electric and connected, you now have not just hardware issues, you have software, algorithms and really the design ethics behind a system. It’s [now] harder to follow the traditional path of determining the root cause.”

Choudhary expects OEMs to initially respond by telling Tier 1 (and potentially Tier 2) suppliers that they all have to accept part of the responsibility. “Because we can’t, in the amount of time we have to address this, figure out what ultimately is an issue and who is ultimately at fault,” he said. “I think you also have a change in the ecosystem with the Tier 2 suppliers because you are going to have more startups and more directed suppliers. I think OEMs will tell the Tier 1s, ‘Okay, we’re going to source you, but you have to work with this startup Tier 2.’”

Then OEM might try to wash its hands of any problems that arise from that Tier 2/directed supplier relationship. This could create a new set of issues, but they may not be issues suppliers can avoid if they wish to continue working with OEMs. “You’re going to have more instances where the Tier 1s are having to bear more financial burden,” Choudhary warned. “And legally, from a hardware/software perspective, they might really be responsible.”

In The Eyes of a Jury

Car accidents create a domino effect of injuries, property damage and lawsuits attempting to place blame. Autonomous vehicles will be no different, albeit with one caveat: juries might be more skeptical of robots and the companies defending them.

“It’s going to be hard to convince a jury that there wasn’t something wrong or a bad design,” said Choudhary. “Or a bad algorithm that didn’t think about rain on the roads in Michigan where you can’t see the lane markings. Anyone in that situation is going to be in a less than optimal condition to make driving decisions. As you see more and more of the driving decisions being made by the company selling the car or designing the car, I think more of the legal burden, in theory, would fall on the designer.”

And that leads to even greater complexity. “First it goes to what’s at issue: was it the algorithm? Bad software code? Was there a hardware issue that was just a pure manufacturing or design defect?” Choudhary questioned. “I think there’s more work involved in determining the cause of the issue. But I think as more of the design of how the driving takes place falls on the OEMs or somebody in that ecosystem, I think the liability may shift away from the drivers and to the OEMs or supplier.”

This will be particularly problematic in cases where a collision could not be avoided. “If you can’t avoid a collision, who do you hit? There’s no good answer,” Choudhary added. “A jury is always going to say that whatever you decided was the wrong answer. So I think you’re going to see more burden falling on those folks versus the operators.”

About the author:

Louis Bedigian is an experienced journalist and contributor to various automotive trade publications. He is a dynamic writer, editor and communications specialist with expertise in the areas of journalism, promotional copy, PR, research and social networking.