Who Will Be Held Responsible for Mistakes Made by Driverless Cars?

September 30th, 2016 by Attorney Julie Butcher

The technology needed to produce safe cars that can navigate our streets and highways is constantly evolving and being tested. There is progress being made toward the goal of driverless vehicles, and some companies hope to leapfrog over competitors by coming up with vehicles where no driver is necessary. If a vehicle is completely autonomous, but it makes an error and someone is hurt or killed, there’s no driver to blame. When that happens on some Kentucky road, who can be held accountable?

Several automakers and high-tech companies are currently testing vehicles that drive themselves on public roads. Other companies have announced plans to expand their development fleets over the next few years. Pittsburgh is the scene of the next step in driverless vehicles. Uber is offering rides in cars that drive themselves while a human is in the driver’s seat to take over to prevent possible accidents, according to ABC News.

Ford plans to mass produce driverless cars and have them in commercial operation in a ride-hailing service by 2021, according to the New York Times. The company made the announcement at a news conference in August at the company’s research center in California. Few details were given other than that the vehicles would be radically different from those on Kentucky roads now. They could lack a steering wheel, brake and gas pedals.

To prepare for those changes, Ford plans on doubling the staff at its research center over the next year. I has acquired a company specializing in computer vision and has invested in three other companies involved in major technologies planned for driverless vehicles.

While car companies are going high tech, high-tech companies plan on making cars. Google and Apple may be future competitors of automakers. Tesla Motors is competing with luxury auto brands with driver-assistance and collision-avoidance technologies.

Driverless cars present opportunities and challenges when it comes to future accidents.

  • Each car would have a number of sensors and cameras (maybe even microphones) to help guide it along to its destination. If all that information can be stored and maintained during and after the accident, it will be easy to reconstruct an accident. The data revealing speed, direction and actions by the car could be downloaded for attorneys and insurance companies to see. There would be no need to weigh the credibility of drivers who give conflicting accounts of what happened.
  • A driverless vehicle would be incredibly complex, with countless lines of computer code running the vehicle. It could have several devices throughout the vehicle to help the car navigate. Software would determine what the car should or shouldn’t do. Accident reconstruction would become far more high tech. Did a camera fail? Was there a problem with the car’s radar? Did the software have a bug? Was the car’s computer hacked?
  • A future plaintiff’s attorney may sue the car’s owner. The owner’s insurance company would defend that person or company but may pin the blame on the car’s manufacturer, who may sue any number of companies who supplied the hardware and software “driving” the car, bringing multiple companies (and their insurance companies) into the legal action, each pointing their finger at the other.

We’re not at this point yet, but it’s just a matter of time before autonomous vehicles are on Kentucky’s streets and highways. We should think about the repercussions of such a situation now and think about whether the laws concerning vehicle accidents need to change to keep up with changes in technology.

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident caused by another party in Kentucky, call the Julie Butcher Law Office at 859-233-3641 or fill out our contact form to talk about your case, applicable laws and your legal options.