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Liability Review: Driverless Cars Edition


The legal system still has no clear answer on how to determine liability in accidents caused by driverless cars. Autonomous vehicles are sweeping the nation. Driverless carsare being pioneered by a variety of firms including Google, Facebook, Uber, Lyft, Ford, and numerous car manufacturers and small start-ups. As companies design more complex machines, and major car manufacturers and most technology companies work to crack the secret on usable autonomous cars, determining who is liable in an accident caused by a driverless car is a process that is increasingly becoming more complicated.

Driverless Cars: A Moral Quandary

Philosophers have tangled with moral quandaries for centuries, including in the modern era. The classic example involves the following: a car is driving with four passengers, a mother and her daughter cross the street and the car is unable to stop. There are two choices. The car can hit the mother and daughter or the car can veer off the road into a tree and kill its passengers. While there is no "right" answer regarding what choice to make, human drivers must make decisions in similar scenarios every day. Since driverless cars are automobiles that are operated without human input, this is something an autonomous vehicle is incapable of doing.

Liability in Traditional Car Accidents

Per traditional liability, a driver is typically liable for any accidents involving his vehicle unless the driver can prove that he was not responsible. For example, in a crash involving traditional, human operated vehicles, one or both drivers are typically held responsible. However, a driver can avoid liability by showing that a defective part existed, an inadequate service was performed on the vehicle or that there was an environmental factor beyond the driver's control that caused the crash. Driverless cars undermine this system because the "drivers" are not operating the vehicle, therefore, how can they be held liable?

Who Is Liable for Accidents with Driverless Vehicles

There are several possible culprits who could be held liable in the event of a driverless car accident.


Under traditional liability, one or both drivers are typically held liable when a car crash occurs (assuming a third party isn't responsible as outlined above). The driver is the one who bears the ultimate power to control the vehicle and therefore is responsible for any outcomes related to that power. But driverless cars do not use human operators, nor is the owner/passenger still the most responsible?


The manufacturer is the entity that constructed the car (i.e. Tesla, Ford, Honda, BMW, etc.). Under products liability theory, if a driverless vehicle causes an accident then it is the fault of the manufacturer of the vehicle. Products liability also holds anyone in the supply chain for the product responsible for any tortious outcomes. Therefore the manufacturer of the car itself, parts and equipment makers, distributors and car dealers might all be able to be held liable. However, this theory could theoretically expose car companies to billions of dollars in liability every year, potentially ending the car industry.


Many car companies won't design or manage the software that operates their driverless cars. The manufacturer may design the car and the supporting sensors that allow the car to drive itself, however, the algorithm will likely be designed by a technology company like Google or Uber (barring a few exceptions like Tesla). Therefore, under products liability, the designer may be the entity most closely associated with the faulty equipment - not the manufacturer.


One final theory assumes that driverless cars will not be owned by individuals but rather by large companies as "fleets" (similar to Uber or Lyft). The economic theory presumes that individual ownership of cars is inefficient when they are driverless and could be summoned by anyone. It is assumed that it would be far cheaper and more efficient for car ownership to be centralized and for the populace to pay a subscription or per ride basis. If this theory holds true, fleet operators could also be held accountable for autonomous car accidents.

Respective insurance companies are the ones who will ultimately pay for any damage caused by self-driving cars. However, determining which insurer is liable and how is a complex question that is still unsettled by the courts and the law. In the absence of clear law, the entities and people involved can assign liability by contract. The result of this system would likely be chaotic which injured parties' likelihood of recovery depending as much on who hits who as the circumstances of the accident.

The Automated Vehicles Act defines a number of terms and specifies rules regarding vehicles that are operated in high or full automation mode In Tennessee. A personal injury lawyer can decipher the Act to help determine liability in a driverless car accident.

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