Who’s Responsible when a Driverless Car Crashes?

Who’s Responsible when a Driverless Car Crashes?

Debate has recently emerged questioning who will be liable when a driverless car gets into an accident.  Tesla Motors Inc. thinks they have found a potential solution in turn signals that are initiated by human drivers.

carcrashTesla plans to activate capabilities such as passing other cars without driver intervention in its future models.  A driver will be able to initiate the function by using the turn signal to notify the car that it can pass. Although this is a minor detail, making the driver activate the turn signal and pass function could help companies like Tesla avoid liability. By using their turn signal, in theory, the driver is ensuring that road and traffic conditions are safe enough to pass. Therefore, the driver is responsible for initiating the process, and ultimately the outcomes of doing so.  As driverless features in cars continue to grow in popularity, auto regulators and insurance companies must clearly define liability rules. This will aid in identifying who is ultimately responsible if a driverless car gets into an accident or strikes a pedestrian.

Currently, cars with driver-assistance features require a high level of driver engagement while the vehicle is operating. Cars that are being built to decrease the level of driver engagement do not have clearly established rules and regulations. In several states, drivers of class-3 vehicles, a car that can drive itself without the driver, are required to have a special registration to be on the road. As the industry continues to progress, vehicles will continue to evolve towards full automation, and clearer rules and regulations will follow.

Tesla in particular is working towards an autopilot feature that is capable of handling most driving duties, and can even pick up a passenger on private property without a driver inside. With this technological development, Tesla will be testing the flexibility of currently established legal definitions. For example, because a driver will no longer need to be fully engaged while driving, does this mean that one hand on the wheel laws or cell phone use while driving laws will need to be more flexible? Overall, there will be a large amount of trust and responsibility placed on the human operator inside the vehicle to pay attention, even if the systems and technology in the car are responsible for driving.


ABOUT Harold Walters

Harold “Hal” Walter is a Principal Attorney in the Business Litigation Practice Group, and also works as an intellectual property (IP) litigation attorney. Mr. Walter’s practice focuses on complex civil litigation including product liability, toxic tort, and a wide variety of commercial and business litigation.




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