It’s a question you’ll hear asked often enough in the coming years as more and more car manufacturers begin to add automated cars to their yearly lineup: who is liable for an accident involving a driverless vehicle? Many car manufacturers are adding features similar to Tesla’s autopilot already, software which is itself becoming much more advanced and allows the driver to hand over control to the onboard computer when driving on certain roads.
Apple is working on a program of its own and has about 66 driverless minivans operating in California. The Audi A8 will allow drivers to remove their hands from the steering wheel already, but only at speeds at or below 37 mpg. Volvo is aiming for a 2021 rollout for self-driving technology. BMW plans to get their own driverless vehicles on the road in the same year.
No matter where you look, it seems like the early 2020s will be the era of the autonomous vehicle, and most car manufacturers are aiming for similar target dates. These vehicles will not be fully autonomous — they won’t use fully enabled level 5 automation, in other words. Instead they’ll rely on weak level 4 or advanced level 3 automation, which basically means the driver still needs to maintain awareness of what the technology is doing in order to prevent accidents.
Unfortunately for the drivers, this will place the burden of liability squarely on their shoulders in the foreseeable future. Most “scandals” involving driverless vehicle accidents until now are the result of lazy human passengers who decided to place trust in a technology that wasn’t supposed to be trusted yet. That makes them mostly responsible for the resulting injuries and fatalities.
However at some point in the future we will reach level 5 automation and passengers in these vehicles will not be expected to pay attention to the road. When this happens the burden of liability will shift primarily from the passenger over to other parties, including manufacturers, used car dealerships, and potentially mechanics or would-be saboteurs. The only case in which the driver would still be held responsible would be if the driver had tried to reprogram or work on the vehicle in a way that rendered the onboard software defective.
Unsurprisingly, the United States Federal Government is still slow to write new laws for the new technology. The Brits have outpaced us, already preparing for the future of driverless vehicles — and quite possibly they’ll therefore have legal access to these vehicles faster than we will if politicians don’t speed things up!