Self-driving cars are the future, and many automakers now offer technologies that continue to bring us closer to a fully autonomous vehicle. The National Safety Council estimates that current driver assistance features in vehicles could save over 20,000 lives each year, reducing total traffic deaths by as much as 62%. Although driver assistance and self-driving technologies make vehicles safer, they’re not 100% effective at protecting against accidents. Collisions can still occur and, as self-driving car accident lawyers can tell you, the task of determining who’s responsible isn’t always straightforward.
Who Might Be Responsible for Accidents?
With a self-driving car, the distinction between responsibility and liability becomes more complex. If a driver had a reasonable expectation that an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) would protect them from the accident and it didn’t, are they liable? When a vehicle using self-driving technologies is involved in a collision, one or more of the following parties may be liable:
- The driver of the self-driving vehicle: Today’s vehicles aren’t fully autonomous. Drivers are still the ones in control. If someone was sleeping, texting, reading, watching a movie or doing another activity while driving, they’ll likely be liable due to their negligence. Many self-driving car accidents still turn out to be the fault of the driver.
- Vehicle manufacturer: California’s product liability laws could hold the automaker that produced the vehicle responsible if the accident occurred because the ADAS was improperly designed or installed incorrectly during the manufacturing process. Misleading marketing that gave the driver a false sense of security could also expose an automaker to liability.
- Component manufacturer: Similarly, if part of the ADAS was manufactured by a third-party company, they might be held liable for design flaws or manufacturing defects.
- Auto dealership: While unlikely, if a driver could prove that the representative of a dealership made false or misleading claims about the safety features of the ADAS, the business could be liable. An example would be if a salesperson is proven to have said, “you can fall asleep and still not get into an accident.”
- Third party: If a third party somehow contributed to the accident, they could also be held liable. Examples include an auto repair shop that damaged the automatic braking system while repairing something else or a construction contractor who didn’t use signage to warn of obstacles in the road.
What Goes Into Determining Responsibility for Self-Driving Car Accidents?
Determining responsibility for an accident involving a self-driving car begins with identifying who’s at fault and who’s liable. California is an at-fault state. This means that when a collision occurs, parties must determine which driver was at fault for the accident. Often, both drivers are determined to be at fault but in varying amounts. One driver may be 80% at fault, while the other might be 20% at fault. In this sense, California is a purely comparative state: you can seek payment if you’re partially at fault, but you must cover a percentage of the costs equal to your degree of fault. If you’re 20% at fault, for example, you can typically only seek compensation for 80% of your costs.
In legal terminology, you’re liable for costs when you’re deemed at fault. The extent of your liability is tied to your degree of fault. The more at fault you are, the greater your liability.
Responsibility has a different meaning, as it refers to a duty that someone has. A driver is responsible for keeping their vehicle under control while on the road. If they fail to do so, they may be legally liable for a collision they cause.
Autonomous Vehicles vs. Driver Assistance: What’s the Difference?
The term “self-driving car” is most often used to refer to an autonomous vehicle but in actuality, self-driving car accidents that occur on the roads today usually involve automobiles with an ADAS.
What Are Autonomous Vehicles?
An autonomous vehicle senses its environment and operates without human involvement. The U.S. Department of Transportation uses a six-level system developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers to assess vehicle automation. Under this system, an autonomous vehicle doesn’t require any human attention or interaction.
As of November 2022, there are no true autonomous vehicles for sale in the United States. But many companies are testing these vehicles and, in some cases, these tests may be conducted on public roadways. In California, the Autonomous Vehicles branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) regulates autonomous test vehicles.
Under California DMV rules, manufacturers must obtain a permit before testing their vehicles on public roads. As of late October 2022, forty-five companies had obtained permits. To obtain a permit, companies must submit a surety bond to demonstrate that they have the financial means to cover the costs of any accidents that may occur during testing. They must also show proof of insurance.
What Is Driver Assistance?
At this stage in the development of autonomous vehicles, so-called self-driving cars don’t actually do the driving for you. Instead, they have ADAS systems that support you. You still drive the vehicle, but ADAS technology can warn you about hazards or even cause the vehicle to respond in a way that may reduce the risk of an accident.
ADAS systems are becoming more commonplace, particularly among electric vehicles. In testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, representatives of Securing America’s Future Energy reported that 58% of vehicles with autonomous technologies had an electric power train while another 21% had a hybrid power train. California is adopting EV technology faster than any other state: an estimated 38.9% of vehicles registered in the state are electric, meaning many of the cars you pass on the highway are likely to have an ADAS.
Some common ADAS technologies include:
- Adaptive cruise control: Accelerates and brakes automatically to keep you a preset distance from the vehicle in front of you
- Automatic crash notification: Notifies first responders when a collision occurs
- Automatic emergency braking: Brakes for you when there’s an imminent threat of a collision with a vehicle or obstacle in front of you
- Automatic high beams: Automatically switches headlights from high to low and vice versa in response to lighting and the presence of other vehicles on the road
- Blind spot intervention: Brakes or steers if you try to change lanes while a vehicle is in your blind spot
- Blind spot warning: Alerts you when a vehicle enters one of your blind spots
- Forward collision warning: Alerts you to the risk of a collision with the vehicle in front of you, so you can react
- Lane centering assistance: Steers the vehicle to keep you in the center of the lane
- Lane departure warning: Alerts you when your vehicle is approaching or crossing lane markers
- Lane keeping assistance: Steers the vehicle to keep you from leaving the lane of traffic
- Pedestrian automatic emergency braking: Brakes for you when a pedestrian moves in front of your vehicle
- Rear automatic braking: Brakes if a crash is imminent while you’re moving in reverse
- Rear cross traffic warning: Alerts you to the presence of other vehicles or obstacles behind you when you’re moving in reverse
Automakers develop their own names for their ADAS suites. Some names you may encounter include:
- AcuraWatch from Acura
- Pre Sense from Audi
- Active Driving Assistance and Active Guard from BMW
- Safe and Smart and Ford Co-Pilot360 from Ford
- Honda Sensing from Honda
- Drive Wise from Kia
- Safety System + from Lexus
- Co-Pilot360 from Lincoln
- I-Activsense from Mazda
- Intelligent Drive from Mercedes-Benz
- Intelligent Safety Shield 360 from Nissan
- Active Safe from Porsche
- Eyesight from Subaru
- Auto-Pilot from Tesla
- Safety Sense from Toyota
- Front Assist from Volkswagen
- City Safety Collision Avoidance Technology from Volvo
What Type of Insurance Do You Need for Self-Driving Cars?
In California, general auto insurance laws and regulations apply to vehicles. California Insurance Code §11580.1b specifies that all drivers must have minimum liability insurance that covers at least:
- $15,000 for injury to or death of one person
- $30,000 for injury to or death of more than one person
- $5,000 for damage to property
Having standalone collision or comprehensive insurance alone isn’t sufficient for vehicles in California.
One perk of driving a vehicle with ADAS technology is a possible discount on auto insurance. When determining rates, insurance companies consider the overall safety rating of a vehicle. Safety suites can reduce the risk of an accident through alerts and automatic interventions. As a result, some insurance companies provide discounted rates for vehicles with ADAS capabilities. In some cases, insurers may discount the rate by 2% to 3% per safety feature, which reduces premiums by about 10% on average.
How Self-Driving Car Accident Lawyers Can Help
As you can see, many variables factor into the determination of who’s responsible when an accident occurs with an autonomous vehicle or an automobile with ADAS. If you were injured in a collision involving one of these vehicles, experienced self-driving car accident lawyers can help you navigate complex laws and regulations that will ultimately determine who is responsible for the accident and for paying for your medical bills and lost wages. Contact Nadrich & Cohen online or call us for a free consultation.