What if an accident occurs and there is no driver involved or a self-driving car? What if the owner has the self driving technology engaged?
With vehicle technology becoming more advanced, more and more cars are on the road using the Autopilot feature. The day when roads are full of self-driving cars may be closer than we think.
Companies like Tesla, Google, and Volvo have already developed self-driving prototypes in the testing phase. Such vehicles are designed with advanced safety features, but that does not mean they are foolproof.
Tesla accounts for a majority of accidents that have happened with driver-assisted car technology. According to the US Department of Transportation (DOT), from July 2021 to October 2022, there were 605 crashes involving advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). 474, or three-quarters of them were Teslas.
These accidents have raised the question: who is liable for a Tesla accident involving autopilot or self-driving features? Is the driver responsible for the accident or the vehicle manufacturer?
Manufacturers are facing increased scrutiny due to accidents that have resulted in severe outcomes and even death. But, to accurately determine who is at fault for self-driving accidents, we must consider several crucial factors.
Who Is Responsible, Man or Machine?
In light of the recent Tesla accidents, there is a serious question of liability. Who can be held legally responsible for the damages after a Tesla accident? Should it be the driver or the manufacturer?
According to the Insurance Information Institute, recent reports indicate that the focus will shift from personal liability to manufacturer liability in autonomous vehicle accidents. In a normal car accident, the collision is usually caused by human error or carelessness. Thus, the injury victim may pursue a claim based on the at-fault driver’s negligence. The basis for most car accident claims is negligence.
However, with autopilot or driver-assisted systems, the car does not technically have a “driver” or human operator. Therefore, when a car crashes, it’s not always due to human negligence. Rather, the crash could be attributed to a vehicle defect or a design flaw. In that case, the manufacturer could be liable for the accident.
Accidents Involving Tesla
The first known death that resulted from a self-driving Tesla Model S was of Joshua Brown in 2016. He was driving on autopilot when the sensors failed and he drove at high speed into an 18-wheel truck. Joshua Brown died after the top of his Model S was torn off by the force of the collision.
Three more Tesla accidents in 2021 involved the Model S and ended with fatalities. One involved two men in Texas, and the other was a man in Colorado. In both accidents, the Model S veered off the road and crashed into trees before bursting into flames. These incidents raised questions about the safety of the cars’ lithium batteries in addition to their operating system. The man who died in the Colorado Tesla accident died from being unable to open the door while it was ablaze.
A recent report from the Dawn Project claims that Tesla’s software systems are a potential threat to child pedestrians. The Dawn Project’s test in 2022 used a Tesla 2019 Model 3 with Full-Self-Driving (FSD) Beta 10.12.2. Test results showed that Tesla’s (FSD) feature consistently strikes child-sized obstructions in the road, posing a significant threat to actual children.
While Tesla shares condolences for each tragedy, they almost always do so with a public response that denies or deflects liability. For example, they report that autopilot is not perfect and getting better all the time but still requires the driver to remain alert.
Self-Driving Cars Under Scrutiny in Light of Rising Fatal Collisions
In June 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) made it mandatory for all vehicle tech companies to report accidents with a “timely and transparent notification.” Companies must report any roadway accident involving automated or advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) within 24 hours of the incident.
With Tesla accounting for nearly three-quarters of the 600+ collisions since June 2021, the company has garnered attention from the public. Of the hundreds of collisions, there were 18 fatalities, most of which also involved Teslas. Since then, the NHTSA has prompted special investigations of over 830,000 Teslas with alleged defects.
Despite fatalities and disastrous accidents linked to Tesla autopilot stacking up worldwide, the company has denied responsibility for virtually all accidents.
How Does Tesla’s Self-Driving Car Impact Insurance?
Since liability can be tricky to establish in self-driving car accidents, the impact on insurance follows suit. Experts believe drivers still need to carry liability insurance, but the types of coverage might change with the evolution of car technology.
Insurance policies will need to evolve to acknowledge the changing car market. One such evolution is “legal personhood.” This is the idea that insurance companies might need to treat computerized systems like people and provide insurance for robots. That is, in the future, insurance companies might recognize driving technologies as insurable entities. Defining robots or car technology as “entities with legal rights and obligations” could make for more effective use and relevant policies and procedures following a car accident. However, assigning fault to a computerized system could mean a massive evasion of responsibility for human drivers and car tech companies.
Furthermore, with the federal government becoming more involved with “driverless cars,” there is a question of how states will maintain autonomy regarding insurance laws.
Currently, all states can regulate their insurance requirements. However, self-driving technologies might need more consistency across state lines to account for driver-assisted systems or self-driving cars.
How Do You Determine Liability in a Self-Driving Tesla Accident?
In the past, discussing a car accident would automatically mean two drivers (or more) were involved and potentially at fault. Consequently, liability would fall on one of the drivers involved in the crash.
Now that we have driverless vehicles on the road, liability is unclear. Rather than relying on drivers’ statements and witness accounts, insurance companies might rely more on electronic devices to determine liability. Virtually all smart cars on the road have a data recording system known as a “black box.” Black boxes provide data in crash and near-crash situations.
Eventually, the burden of proof will be on the car manufacturing company to prove that their vehicle did not cause the crash. Or, they will have to provide clear and convincing evidence that the driver caused the crash rather than the vehicle’s technology.
While other companies have accepted full responsibility for all damages in self-driving accidents, Tesla hasn’t done so. Part of what makes this difficult is a lack of a national consensus for car technology milestones. This makes accident liability rather ambiguous for self-driving accidents in the US.
Even if manufacturers are found liable for a crash, injury victims still need to prove the extent of damages they suffered. Negotiating with insurance companies is never an easy task. However, hiring strong legal representation can help you get through that process hassle-free.
Can the Owner or Driver of a Tesla Be Held Liable?
Yes. Since there are no federal regulations on self-driving cars, the owner or driver of the car can still be held liable. Unfortunately, there’s not much liability protection for drivers of automated vehicles. But negligence is still negligence. As it can be complicated to establish liability after a self-driving accident, the best thing to do is enlist the help of an experienced car accident attorney.
An attorney will be able to review your case and determine which parties are liable. For example, if the vehicle owner failed to properly maintain their car, they could be held liable. Regardless of whether there was
Contact a Denver Car Accident Attorney Today
If you were involved in a Tesla accident, you could get help from an experienced Denver Tesla accident lawyer. Whether you were hit by a Tesla or you were driving Tesla, liability can always be contested and established after a crash.
We offer free initial consultations, so contact us today, and we will review your case. Then we can discuss your legal options and the next best move.