Who Is Liable for a Collision with an Autonomous Vehicle?

Who Is Liable for a Collision with an Autonomous Vehicle?When you are in an accident with another vehicle, it can be simple to determine who was the at-fault party. Whether you were hit because the other driver was drunk, driving distracted, or driving reckless, the driver is the one liable for any damages and injuries you might have sustained. However, with modern day technology advancing at increasing speed, the roads are being filled with more and more vehicles that have partially automated driver-assist systems, and even some fully autonomous vehicles (though those are far fewer).

With technology so new, determining who is liable for accidents with these autonomous vehicles varies case by case. Through investigation, it can be deemed that the driver was at fault, or possibly that the car’s manufacturer is liable. For example, if the vehicle’s driver assistance system failed to do what it was supposed to do, and the driver was unable to correct the vehicle’s defect in time, the liability is likely to fall to the manufacturer.

However, if the vehicle was engaged in an autopilot feature, and the driver was not paying attention at the time of the accident wherein the driver had time and opportunity to take control of the vehicle before the crash, then the driver may be at fault instead. Sometimes, both the driver and the manufacturer can be held responsible.

Due to the difficulty of determining who (or what) is to blame for the crash, the parties may try to rely on Washington’s contributory negligence doctrine to lessen their percentage of responsibility. In either case, if you were the victim of an accident, you deserve compensation for your pain and suffering, no matter who is liable.

If you are in an accident with one such vehicle, and the vehicle operator was technically not the one driving, determining who is responsible for the collision can become complicated. This is why you should have a Kennewick car accident attorney on your side. We at Telaré Law know how to handle these types of cases.

Autonomous vehicles are already on our Washington roads

Most of our vehicles already have some autonomous features, or Advanced Driver-Assistance System (ADAS) technologies. These include cruise control, automatic emergency braking, surround view, pedestrian detection, parking assist, driver drowsiness detection, and gaze detection. These technologies are meant to assist the driver. However, other vehicles have increased levels of automation that allow the driver to let the vehicle completely take over some aspects of driving.

According to NPR, “automakers reported nearly 400 crashes of vehicles with partially automated driver-assist systems, including 273 involving Teslas, according to statistics released Wednesday by U.S. safety regulators.” Companies like Tesla seem to be paving the way for autonomous vehicle technology, as they have around 830,000 vehicles on the road that are equipped with “autopilot, ‘Full Self-Driving,’ Traffic Aware Cruise Control, or other driver-assist systems.”

If a driver is in an accident with one of these vehicles while the driver of the autonomous vehicle has engaged one such driver-assist system, it becomes difficult to know who is liable for the collision -- the driver or the vehicle?

What are the levels of driving automation?

The SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) have created a classification standard for the levels of automation in vehicles. With five levels spanning from no driving automation features to full driving automation, our roads are mostly filled with vehicles that only have partial driving assistance features.

The six levels of automation are:

  • Level 0: No Automation. The driver of the vehicle is in control of everything, and must always be attentive.
  • Level 1: Assisted Driving Automation. With minimal assistance, the driver must still remain attentive, though the vehicle has features such as adaptive cruise control and/or parking sensors.
  • Level 2: Partial Automation. The vehicle is equipped with more assistance features including those found in level 1, but the vehicle is capable of self-driving under very specific circumstances.
  • Level 3: Conditional Automation. While the car can take control of operations, the driver must be attentive and prepared to take control of the vehicle at any moment.
  • Level 4: High Automation. While the driver can take control of the vehicle if they want to, the car can operate itself under specific situations without intervention.
  • Level 5: Full Automation. These vehicles can drive themselves, no driver necessary. These vehicles possibly may not be equipped with a gas pedal or a steering wheel.

The roads currently are mostly filled with Level 1 vehicles, with limited driving assistance systems, and with no ability for the car to operate itself. Tesla’s vehicles have taken a step further, many cars falling into Level 2 of automation. Further, in places such as Phoenix, Arizona, Autonomous Ride-Hailing services such as Waymo are testing out and allowing certain passengers to ride in fully autonomous taxis, or Level 5 vehicles.

While the future holds great promise for vehicles and the field of automation, it is obvious that we need to take cautious steps forward. With people’s lives held in self-driving vehicles, designers and manufacturers need to be sure that their products and technologies are safe. With more autonomous features being developed, we may very well see more and more companies being held liable for accidents instead of the drivers themselves. If you have been involved in an accident with a vehicle that has partial or full autonomous features, then you should seek counsel from one of Telaré Law’s knowledgeable car accident attorneys. We have offices in Kennewick and Richland. To schedule an appointment, call us or use our contact page. We want to help. Proudly serving Pasco, Walla Walla, the Tri-Cities, and all of Southeast Washington.