By 2025, estimates place the partially autonomous vehicle market at a value of $36 billion. Partially autonomous vehicles are those with smart, driverless features such as automatic braking and lane recovery, but that still depend on a human operator. Companies such as Google, Uber, Toyota, GM, and Ford have all begun crafting plans for partial or fully autonomous vehicles, with many already on the roads. If a driverless vehicle causes an accident, however, who is liable?
In a typical car accident claim, victims will turn to their own auto insurance companies for the reimbursement of lost earnings and medical bills. This is because New York is a no-fault insurance state – one of only 13 in the country. In a no-fault state, it does not matter who was at fault for the collision. Everyone must carry adequate car insurance, and victims will seek medical and lost wages recovery through their own insurers regardless of fault. A victim would turn to the at-fault driver’s insurance company for benefits is if he/she was seriously injured – meaning those injuries that meet the serious injury threshold in New York law, namely:
If the car accident injuries are serious enough, the victim can file a personal injury lawsuit against the at-fault party outside the state’s no-fault system. This could lead to greater recovery, such as damages for pain and suffering. If a driverless autonomous vehicle, or a driver using a semi-autonomous vehicle’s driverless features, cause a crash, assigning liability for damages can be difficult. Instead of involving just two drivers, the case will also involve the manufacturer of the vehicle and autonomous technology.
In 2018, a self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian crossing the street in Tempe, Arizona. Initial reports of the accident speculated whether an autonomous equipment defect caused the collision by failing to recognize the crossing pedestrian and to halt the vehicle. Others wondered what the human “backup driver” behind the wheel had been doing at the time of impact. Still others blamed the pedestrian, who was walking her bike across Mill Avenue at an unlit, unmarked part of the roadway.
In this crash example, identifying liability for the death of the pedestrian is not easy. The outcome of this case remains unknown, but Uber immediately suspended its driverless vehicle test drives in Arizona following the accident. It appears the backup human driver may have been watching videos on his phone at the time of the crash, resulting in a failure to hit the brakes in time to avoid a collision. Yet the self-driving technology should foreseeably have detected the pedestrian and automatically applied the brakes.
In New York, both the owner and the operator of a motor vehicle can be held liable for an accident. This is true even if the owner of the vehicle was not physically involved in the accident.
In addition to owners and operators, deaths and injuries from driverless vehicles may come down to the liability of the technology company. If the vehicle had no backup driver, or if the technology experienced a glitch or failure that caused the collision, the manufacturer of the vehicle or tech may bear liability for damages. It is the vehicle manufacturer’s duty to adequately test autonomous technology and driverless vehicles for safety prior to exposing the public to its products. Failure to reasonably ensure vehicle or equipment safety, resulting in accidents and injuries, is negligence.
Identifying liability for a New York auto accident involving a driverless vehicle will take an in-depth investigation. Police, insurance companies, attorneys, and private investigators may look into the crash to determine who or what was the main cause of the accident.