Driverless Car Accidents
The future is almost here. Driverless cars will soon allow you to commute to work, school, or the store without touching the wheel or pedal. At least, that’s what the multi-billion-dollar autonomous vehicles market wants you to think. Are driverless cars safe? Who is responsible if a driverless car causes an accident? These are challenging questions that the legal team at Gallagher & Kennedy is ready to tackle.
This page explores the promise and peril of driverless technology, the current status of the autonomous vehicle market, and the legal implications of these developments. If a driverless vehicle causes an accident and you get hurt, you need an experienced, sophisticated car accident lawyer to guide you through this complex legal landscape.
The Promise and Peril of Driverless Technology
Manufacturers and developers of driverless technology praise its numerous benefits.
However, these promises are not always backed up by facts or results.
Here are some of the promises and perils of driverless technology:
- Convenience. Driverless cars could be incredibly convenient for most people. For example, according to the Census Bureau, the average U.S. worker spends 27 minutes commuting one way to work,. What if you could work, read, or rest during that time? Imagine if your car could run errands, like picking up your groceries and dry cleaning. In reality, that level of automation is still very far off. Meanwhile, it may negatively influence drivers into depending too heavily on driver-assisted technology that is not meant to replace the driver’s engagement. Ultimately, more distracted people could get behind the wheel of a vehicle they mistakenly think can drive itself.
- Greater accessibility. Advocates say driverless technology would make transportation more accessible to seniors, people with disabilities, families with young children, and underrepresented communities. Indeed, a vehicle with full automation would make it possible for a person who is physically unable to drive to get around. However, vehicles equipped with full automation are still years away from being available for most people. Once they are, their expense could hinder access for those needing them the most.
- Less traffic. Designers of driverless technology boast of less traffic and shorter commutes. The theory is that autonomous vehicles could communicate with one another, anticipate traffic flow, and adjust routes accordingly. But again, if their convenience and accessibility lead to more usage of autonomous vehicles, we might still experience an increase in traffic.
- Environmental benefits. Less traffic could also decrease harmful carbon emissions. In the years to come, fully automated vehicles could eliminate the need for parking lots or spaces. The vehicle could drop its occupant off and return home on its own. Fewer parking lots could transform land use across the country. On the other hand, if the added convenience and accessibility of driverless technology increases usage, that increase could diminish the environmental benefits.
- Safety. Manufacturers and developers of driverless technology claim that automation will make driving safer because it eliminates the primary cause of most accidents, which is driver error. Current driver assistance systems still require some driver engagement, however. While we wait for full automation, driver assistance technology may encourage more distracted driving. Furthermore, full automation technology is still undergoing rigorous testing, so we do not yet know its full safety benefits.
Levels and Examples of Driver Assistance and Automation
Today, the new car market boasts several vehicles with driver assistance or semi-autonomous technology.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) structures driver automation on the following continuum:
- Momentary driver assistance. The vehicle offers warnings and alerts only. The driver is fully engaged and in control. Examples include automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, and lane departure warning.
- Driver assistance. The vehicle provides continuous assistance to the driver with accelerating, braking, and steering. The driver remains fully engaged with their hands on the steering wheel and feet on the pedals. Examples include adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance.
- Additional assistance. The vehicle assists continuously with accelerating/braking and steering, but the driver remains fully engaged. An example is a highway pilot.
- Conditional automation. The vehicle drives itself, but the driver remains available to take over. Vehicles with conditional automation are not currently available in the U.S. market.
- High automation. The vehicle drives itself with occupants acting as unengaged passengers but only in limited areas. Vehicles offering high automation are not currently available for purchase on the U.S. market.
- Full automation. The vehicle drives itself on all roads under any conditions, with occupants acting as unengaged passengers. Vehicles offering full automation are not currently available for purchase on the U.S. market.
Reports differ on how quickly technology will progress from momentary driver assistance to full automation. An article from the Insurance Information Institute reports that most industry experts believe it will be 2035 before equipment like steering wheels and gas/brake pedals are potentially removed from most cars on the market.
Companies at the Forefront of Autonomous Driving
Dozens of companies are developing, testing, and investing in autonomous vehicles.
Some of these you have likely heard of, and some you haven’t:
- Tesla. Tesla’s Autopilot software uses artificial intelligence, cameras, and sensors to assist drivers with steering, braking, accelerating, and parking. The NHTSA is currently investigating 191 crashes involving Autopilot or other driver-assistance features because of safety concerns. The company continues to test its Full Self-Driving system with beta testers.
- Uber. Uber recently announced a 10-year agreement with Motional to operate its Hyundai robotaxis on Uber’s network. The two companies joined forces to test autonomous Uber Eats deliveries in Santa Monica, California. Uber was an early player in autonomous driving, launching its self-driving unit Uber ATG in 2015. But they sold it to Aurora after sinking millions of dollars into the venture. It also attracted negative publicity for a fatal accident involving one of its test vehicles. Uber is also partnering with Aurora on self-driving trucks to haul goods.
- Waymo. Waymo, owned by Alphabet, is highly invested in multiple autonomous driving projects. For example, the company is currently road-testing autonomous 18-wheelers in multiple locations, including Texas and Arizona. The company also offers Waymo One, a purportedly fully autonomous ride-hailing service in certain cities in Arizona. However, according to recent reports, the company still utilizes safety drivers and limits rides to certain people, such as trusted testers or employees. Furthermore, the company needed significant buy-in from the local community to launch this service.
- Motional. Besides Uber, Motional’s partners include Lyft and Via. Launched as a joint venture by automaker Hyundai and auto parts maker Aptiv, Motional first began testing its robotaxi service in Las Vegas in 2018.
- Microsoft. Microsoft has a unique approach compared to the other major companies involved in autonomous driving. Rather than acquiring smaller self-driving companies or building out its own venture, it focuses on the software to support self-driving car startups. Microsoft is currently partnering with Cruise, Wayve, and Volkswagen Group.
- Cruise. A subsidiary of General Motors, Cruise offers self-driving taxis to certain parts of San Francisco but has attracted negative attention from city officials and residents. Multiple reports document the driverless cars stopping in the middle of traffic and turning on their hazard lights, presenting safety concerns and traffic problems.
How Many Driverless Car Accidents Occur in the U.S.?
In June 2021, the NHTSA issued a Standing General Order requiring manufacturers and operators to report crashes involving vehicles equipped with advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) or automated driving systems (ADS). It’s important to note that fully automated driving systems are still in development and not currently available for purchase by consumers. However, manufacturers and operators are testing this technology on public roads, putting innocent people at risk.
One year later, the NHTSA released its first reports on crashes reported by manufacturers and operators.
Among vehicles with ADAS, the report revealed:
- Twelve reporting entities submitted reports for 392 crashes involving ADS-equipped vehicles. Tesla reported 273, the highest number of all reporting entities, and Honda followed with 90.
- Most ADAS-equipped vehicle crashes (125) occurred in California.
- Most crash reports originated from the vehicles via reporting software. Customer complaints accounted for the second most common source.
- Only 98 crash reports included information about injuries or fatalities. Of those 98, five crashes resulted in serious injuries, and six resulted in fatalities. If those numbers indicate the proportion of driverless car accidents in a larger population, it could be cause for worry.
- Only 116 crash reports included information about other objects, vehicles, or persons involved in the crash. Of those, 78 collided with a fixed object (other than a tree or pole), and 62 collided with a passenger car.
A separate report on vehicles testing ADS exposed the following concerning information:
- Twenty-five reporting entities submitted reports for 130 crashes involving ADS-equipped vehicles.
- Again, California accounted for the most ADS crashes (90).
- Waymo LLC accounted for 62 crash reports, followed by Transdev Alternative Services with 34 and Cruise LLC with 23.
- Quite concerningly, 108 of the ADS-involved crashes reported colliding with a passenger car. Another 27 reportedly crashed with an SUV. Eleven crashes involved what the report calls a “vulnerable road user,” which includes cyclists, motorcyclists, and non-motorists.
Who Is Responsible for a Driverless Car Accident?
With several companies pushing for more autonomous driving, more accidents are likely to occur. Who is responsible when a driverless car crashes into something or someone?
In general, when one person harms another, the victim may be able to get accountability through a personal injury claim. When it is the product that causes harm, the victim may be able to hold the product maker accountable through a product liability claim.
Today, most vehicles on the road still require the driver to be fully engaged, attentive to the driving activity, and ready to take over driving if needed. Therefore, the driver could still be liable for an accident, even if the vehicle was using driver assistance technology.
However, as vehicles utilizing driverless technology acquire more automation and require less engagement from the driver, the maker of the vehicle or the technology could be liable for accidents occurring while in driverless mode.
Because driverless cars will utilize numerous cameras, tracking systems, and sensors, accidents involving these vehicles may produce troves of data that could be evidence of liability.
This area of the law is constantly evolving. If a driverless vehicle injured you in an accident, you need to consult an attorney who understands the autonomous driving landscape and the legal implications of this new technology.
Are There Laws Governing Driverless Cars?
Since 2012, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has issued voluntary guidance on autonomous driving systems. In 2021, DOT released The Automated Vehicles Comprehensive Plan to promote collaboration and transparency, modernize the regulatory environment, and prepare the transportation system. Even so, there are no specific federal laws governing driverless cars.
However, several states and Washington, DC, have enacted laws permitting various levels of autonomous driving:
- Five states authorized a study of autonomous driving technology
- 12 states authorized testing of autonomous driving technology
- 16 states and the District of Columbia authorized the full deployment of driverless technology
- 20 states allow testing or deployment without a human operator in the vehicle
- Four states have regulations for truck autonomous platooning (a human driver operates a lead truck, but additional trucks follow autonomously)
Some states have embraced autonomous vehicles, whereas others have been cautious. For example, Arizona began testing autonomous driving technology in 2015 with an executive order from then-Governor Doug Ducey. The Governor issued a new executive order in 2018 to reflect advancements in technology in testing. In 2021, the state legislature passed HB 2813, which essentially codified much of the Governor’s 2018 executive order.
The law allows commercial services such as passenger and freight transportation to be fully autonomous. It also allows a licensed driver to operate an autonomous vehicle on public roads if the driver can resume driving when necessary. Furthermore, a fully autonomous vehicle can operate without a human driver, and the Arizona Department of Transportation must receive a law enforcement interaction plan. The vehicle must also meet all legal standards and regulations.
Contact a Driverless Car Accident Lawyer
While driverless car advocates promise a convenient, safe, and efficient future with autonomous driving, the reality is only beginning to develop. Serious risks remain, as evidenced by the 392 accidents involving vehicles with ADAS in one year. If a driverless car or driver-assistance technology caused your accident, contact an experienced, knowledgeable driverless car accident attorney as soon as possible.