You’ve likely been hearing a lot about vehicles that fall under this broad description lately. In April alone, we learned that General Motors (GM) had filed for a patent on an autonomous vehicle that would replace human driving instructors, the UK indicated that operators of self-driving cars would be allowed to watch television while at the wheel, and a US billionaire announced that he was running for Congress to “make computers safe for humanity.” Task one, he said, would be to keep “full self-driving” Teslas off the road.
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If you’re uncertain about the status of self-driving cars – legally and practically – you’re far from alone. Part of the reason for the uncertainty is that self-driving cars are still under development, and that term is widely used to describe both fully autonomous vehicles and cars with self-driving features.
One significant question on many people’s minds is “Who is responsible if I’m injured in a self-driving car accident?”
Self-Driving Cars in Ohio
Ohio has been ahead of the curve on self-driving vehicles for years. The state’s Drive Ohio initiative is “committed to advancing smart mobility in Ohio and being a one-stop shop for those looking to develop, test and deploy advanced mobility solutions in Ohio.” As early as 2016, the state was involved in testing self-driving tractor trailers, and in 2020 autonomous tractor trailers took a test run from Pittsburgh to Detroit using the Ohio Turnpike.
Back in 2018, the city launched a pilot program to provide a driverless public transportation shuttle. After that pilot concluded, another launched, taking the self-driving transport vehicle into a residential neighborhood. The second pilot program was suspended after a relatively minor incident involving the vehicle stopping suddenly. Then, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the city shifted its purpose and put the autonomous vehicles to work delivering food. Between July of 2020 and April of 2021, the program delivered 3,598 food pantry boxes, containing about 130,000 meals.
Self-Driving Car Accidents
Self-driving cars are touted as being much safer than vehicles operated by humans. Or, at least, that’s the ultimate goal. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says autonomous features will offer greater crash avoidance, due to enhanced detection and quicker response time.
But, you’ve undoubtedly heard about enough self-driving cars to recognize that the systems haven’t fully been perfected–and will likely never be perfect. The Columbus shuttle accident mentioned above was relatively minor. The vehicle stopped abruptly, and a passenger was knocked from the seat to the floor. After a thorough investigation, it was determined that warning passengers about the possibility of abrupt stops was a sufficient protective measure. But, the vehicle was traveling at just over 7 miles per hour. Obviously, that sort of event at higher speeds and in traffic could be much more dangerous.
Some high-profile autonomous vehicle accidents include:
- In late 2017, a Las Vegas self-driving shuttle ended its first trip in a collision. The National Transportation Safety Board (NSTB) determined that the accident occurred for two reasons. First, the truck driver that collided with the shuttle wasn’t aware that it was an autonomous vehicle and expected the shuttle to adjust its path. Second, though there was an operator on board, the positioning of the manual override didn’t allow quick access to avert the collision.
- The following year, a self-driving vehicle that was part of an Uber test program killed a pedestrian who was walking her bicycle across the street. The vehicle did detect the victim about six seconds before hitting her, but failed to determine that the object it sensed was a person, and so didn’t account for her movement. The “driver” of the vehicle was reportedly watching a popular television show on her phone.
- In 2019, a driver who was operating a Tesla on Autopilot was charged with vehicular manslaughter after the vehicle ran a red light and crashed into another vehicle, killing two people.
Who Is Liable for Self-Driving Car Accidents?
As the examples above illustrate, it’s common for two or more factors to contribute to a self-driving car accident. Often, that means there may be more than one responsible party. This is especially true now, since cars are generally not fully autonomous and the operator is responsible for monitoring the situation and taking control of the vehicle as needed.
Possible responsible parties in a self-driving car accident may include:
- The manufacturer of the self-driving vehicle or equipment components of the vehicle, if they failed to operate as intended and represented and that failure caused or contributed to the accident,
- The operator of the self-driving vehicle, if they were negligent in monitoring or failed to take evasive action to avoid the collision,
- The operator of another vehicle, if their negligence caused or contributed to the collision–the self-driving car and its operator won’t be responsible (or fully responsible) for every accident involving an autonomous vehicle,
- A pedestrian, bicyclist, motorcyclist, or other party whose negligence contributed to the accident, whether or not they were involved in the collision, and
- The party responsible for maintaining or designing a road or other accident site, if the condition or flawed design contributed to or caused the accident
An expert tip from Doug Mann
As of today, there isn’t much established law relating specifically to self-driving car accidents, in Ohio or around the country. That may change as self-driving vehicles become more fully autonomous and become more common on the road. For the moment, liability is determined much as it would be in any other car accident. That means liability will typically be based in negligence, product liability, or a mix of the two.
Identifying responsible parties and building a case can be complicated even in a traditional car accident case, and those complications may be more significant when relatively new technology is in play. The best way to assess who may be responsible for your injuries in a self-driving car accident and how to build the most effective case is to speak with an experienced Ohio motor vehicle accident attorney as soon as possible after your accident.