Humans v. Robots: Who's Responsible when an Autonomous Car Crashes?

September 16, 2015

It seems like a scene from a futuristic movie: drones dropping off packages on people’s doorsteps and cars that drive themselves while the passenger is simply along for the ride, but these technological advances are much closer than they appear.  2015 has been a huge year for investments in autonomous cars.  Nearly every carmaker has joined in the developing industry in some way or another.  For instance, General Motors has plans to use advanced cruise control in a new Cadillac next year.  This “Super Cruise” will allow drivers on the highway to not even use a steering wheel on highways.
Other companies are taking this technology even further than cruise control.  As of this month, ten companies have authorization to test autonomous vehicles on public roads in California.  After years of secure testing in private facilities, Honda was granted permission to use their autonomous cars on the state’s streets, making it the most recent addition to the list, which includes Tesla Motors, BMW, Volkswagon Group of America, Mercedes Benz, Google, Nissan, Cruise Automation, Bosch, and Delphi Automotive, according to the California DMV website.  The requirements and application process for manufacturers to gain DMV’s approval for this testing is also included on the site.
The technology is rapidly advancing, and it is expected that soon these cars will be used for shipping, in the logistics industry and probably even alongside unmanned drones for delivering packages.  The bottom line is this: the robots are coming, and one of the major setbacks for the practical use of this technology is the legal field isn’t keeping up; and even more, the field is having trouble making important decisions about the liability for these cars.
One of the main goals of autonomous cars is to reduce of the number of car crashes.  Some of the biggest automakers in the world recently announced that they plan to make Automatic Emergency Braking, also called forward collision avoidance, a standard feature in their vehicles.  Yet even with this advancing technology, collisions are inevitable due to problems such as drunk driving, human inattention, and mechanical errors.  As a matter of fact, a Google autonomous car was involved in the company’s first injury-causing accident, leading people back to one of the main conundrums about the use of autonomous cars:

Who will bear the burden of liability when an autonomous car crashes?

The argument since autonomous cars became a mainstream idea a few years ago has been the automakers and software engineers vs. the human “drivers.”  If the crash cannot be traced specifically to a mechanical error such as the brakes or a sensor, should the automaker be sued for the crash or should liability fall upon the “driver” in the self-driving car?
Recently, the automakers have been losing this battle.  New information regarding hacking of the software and disabling the cars with a laser has shifted liability away from the human “drivers” of these cars and back toward the automakers.  There is currently no line drawn between driver responsibility and vehicle responsibility, but with this technology quickly approaching the mainstream market, new policy needs to be made.
One differentiation that may help in determining liability is distinguishing between an “autonomous car” and a “self-driving car.”  These words have commonly been used interchangeably, but some automakers would like for people to know the difference and to begin to use the words differently.
An autonomous car is similar to the current car; it has a steering wheel and forward-facing seats.  These cars use advanced technology to help drivers avoid accidents and to perform other, more difficult maneuvers such as parallel parking.  This type of technology can already be found on the market and on the streets.
Contrastingly, self-driving cars take the technology a step further, and they are not yet available to the public.  The car would ideally completely drive itself using GPS, lasers, sensors, and other tools, depending on the automaker, thus rendering the steering wheel completely useless.
Automakers have typically been in favor of the “autonomous car,” because there is still a driver to be held liable for the crashes.  Yet, many of the largest automakers are still pursuing the idea and the technology to release a fully “self-driving car” despite knowing that the further this technology advances, the more tangled the lines of liability become.