Accidents in Autonomous Automobiles: Who is Legally Liable?


For decades, autonomous features in cars have rapidly developed; in the current age of automation, modern drivers no longer have to drive stick shift or manually change their headlights as day turns to night.[1] In fact, in more recent years, car technology has even improved to the point where some vehicles can operate without a driver. Although such developments are groundbreaking, there are still obstacles which prevent the full integration and use of autonomous automobiles, due to infrastructural defects and the lack of legal precedent involving cases with driverless cars.

A number of states have set regulations for the testing of driverless cars, so that defects can be detected before firms market their technology nationwide. In Arizona, the technology is loosely regulated in order to promote business and innovation. As a result, on March 17th, an autonomous Uber in Tempe, Arizona, struck and killed a pedestrian. Despite the advanced technology and backup human driver, the two-ton machine struck Mrs. Herzberg at a speed of 40 mph because the car’s sensors did not detect her presence. In the past, accidents involving autonomous vehicles were blamed on the manned vehicle in which the accident was involved or on the shortcoming of the human driver behind the wheel. The case that occurred in Tempe, Arizona can only be blamed on the technology of the driverless car and thus has raised speculation as to who is accountable for the tragedy.[2]

If the manufacturer were to be held liable for every accident involving autonomous technology, the burden of monetary loss might be too great for any one firm, which would prevent the further development of this technology. On the contrary, it would seem unfair to deem the human passenger accountable as the vehicle was purchased with the intention of minimal manual effort. In any case, the inability for the product to meet consumer expectation can be related to tort law, more specifically, products liability.[3]

In the field of tort law, a tort can be defined as “an act or omission that gives rise to injury or harm to another and amounts to a civil wrong for which courts impose liability.”[4] Essentially, if one party invades the legal rights of another, that action can be scrutinized in a court of law and the injured party can be compensated. Products liability falls under the category of tort law and refers to the liability in which a party is injured due to an “inherent defect that cause[s] harm to a consumer.”[5] The inability for a driverless car to detect obstacles on the road is inherently a defect and can present a case of false advertising, as autonomous vehicles are marketed as a supposedly safer alternative to normal vehicles with a driver.

While case law regarding accidents of autonomous vehicles is sparse, products liability cases, however, are relatively common. In the late 1980’s, Mike Lewy filed a lawsuit after his Remington Model 700 opened fire when he moved the safety in order to eject the gun’s cartridge. The bullet went through the ceiling of the Lewy’s home and struck Mr. Lewy’s mother in the leg. The case of Lewy v. Remington Arms Co. resulted in $420,000 of monetary compensation awarded to the Lewy family. Lewy v. Remington Arms Co. presents a straightforward example of a products liability case in which a firm produced a faulty product that injured a consumer and thus provided apt compensation for any incurred damages.

Although damage endured by a consumer due to the use of a driverless car falls under the tort of products liability, it is difficult to determine who would or should suffer the cost of damages. The software of an autonomous car is programed to make the most efficient decisions that result in the least damage. The following questions and ambiguities then arise: Would a firm have to provide compensation in the case that an autonomous car causes an accident in order to avoid another one? Would the owner of one driverless car have to compensate for crashing into another driverless car when neither owner was physically operating the vehicle?

Some legal experts have attempted to answer these questions by looking at the General Aviation Act. This act limits the products liability on aircraft manufacturers by allotting a window of time in which products liability suits can be filed against the firm. This law kept general aviation companies from enduring lawsuits as their products deteriorated overtime.[6] Such a law could be applied to autonomous vehicles so that manufacturers do not face excessive liabilities. However, according to many manufacturers, the system controlling the car will learn from mistakes caused by any other car using the same system. Thus, in time, these cars will advance and become safer.[7]

Due to the various complexities presented by this legal issue, it is difficult to assess how regulation will be applied to autonomous vehicles on a state-by-state basis. With the advent of new technology, it is clear that old laws inevitably become inapplicable. Accidents involving driverless cars may deal with tort law and products liability, but this technology still inevitably presents a grey area in the laws which govern vehicles today—an area which must be clarified in order to prevent future tragedies and injuries.

[1] Krauss, Michael I. “What Should Tort Law Do When Autonomous Vehicles Crash,” Forbes (23 May 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelkrauss/2017/04/07/what-should-tort-law-do-when-autonomous-vehicles-crash/#77e8f691181c.

[2] Wakabayashi, Daisuke. “Self-Driving Uber Car Kills Pedestrian in Arizona, Where Robots Roam,” The New York Times (19 March 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/19/technology/uber-driverless-fatality.html.

[3] Krauss, Michael I. “What Should Tort Law Do When Autonomous Vehicles Crash,” Forbes (23 May 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelkrauss/2017/04/07/what-should-tort-law-do-when-autonomous-vehicles-crash/#77e8f691181c.

[4] “Tort,” Cornell Law School, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/tort.

[5] “Products Liability,” Cornell Law School, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/products_liability.

[6] Stolzer, Alan J. “The General Aviation Revitalization of 1994: An Overview of Tort Reform,” Journal of Aviation/Aerospace Education and Research 9, vol. 8, (1998).

[7] Krauss, Michael I. “What Should Tort Law Do When Autonomous Vehicles Crash,” Forbes (23 May 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelkrauss/2017/04/07/what-should-tort-law-do-when-autonomous-vehicles-crash/#77e8f691181c.