Self Driving Cars and Personal Injury Law: What You Need to Know

by The Roth Firm

New Legislation Regarding Self-Driving Cars

  • A Vision for Safety 2.0
  • Federal Automated Vehicles Policy
  • SELF Driving Act
  • American Vision for Safer Transportation Through Advancement of Revolutionary Technology Act (AV START)

 Besides the above legislation, there are also many Executive Orders and Initiatives that are in the works in individual states.

The Transportation Industry is currently being turned upside down by the emergence of Self-Driving Vehicle Technology. 

Companies including Tesla, Google, General Motors, and Uber are just some of the major players who have already begun to implement this new technology.

When a revolutionary technology like this emerges, the legal system is also turned upside down as it attempts to keep up with all of the new legal issues created.

So what is going to happen to the average joe who is involved in this kind of personal injury accident and needs an attorney to get compensation for their injuries? How will Personal Injury Attorneys fight for the compensation their clients deserve? Who will be liable when a person is injured by one of these vehicles?

Unfortunately, plenty of laws come from the rulings issued by the supreme court in cases that have already occurred.

What this means is that many of the new laws that are eventually enacted in regard to driverless cars will be the result of people already being involved in collisions.

However, government legislators are currently writing regulations to try and keep up with this ever-expanding industry.

In this article, we will take a look at the Federal and State regulations that are either already enacted or are in the process, as well as the governing bodies that are responsible for regulating the Autonomous Car Industry.

We will then proceed to go over some of the legal cases that have already emerged due to Driverless Vehicles, and what effects all of this will have on the legal industry.

Legislation Regarding Self Driving Cars and Governing Bodies

United States Department of Transportation (US DOT)

The United States main governing body whose main concern is the maintenance and development of the nation's transportation system and infrastructure. This includes Aviation, Roads, Railways, and Waterways. The Department of Transportation is also responsible for developing, implementing, and enforcing federal regulations in regards to transportation, which now includes Self-Driving Vehicles. 

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

The NHTSA is the governing body over the Automated Car Industry, as appointed by the U.S. House and Senate Commerce Committee. 

  • A Vision for Safety 2.0 – The Vision for Safety 2.0 is an update to the previous legislation regarding Automated Driving Systems written by the NHTSA and includes two sections; Voluntary Guidance and Technical Assistance to States. The purpose of this guidance is to provide best practices for legislatures, incorporate common safety components regarding Automated Driving Systems. The Vision for Safety 2.0 act also reinforces earlier legislation which states that companies do not need to wait to test or deploy Automated Driving Systems.
Federal Automated Vehicles Policy

The Federal Automated Vehicles Policy was created in September 2016, and leaves the manufacturing specifics to the Car Companies, but provides a voluntary 15-point safety checklist for the manufacturers.

SELF Driving Act

The Self Driving Act states that the Department of Transportation has the responsibility of:

  • completing research to determine the most cost-effective method and terminology for informing consumers about the capabilities and limitations of each highly automated vehicle or each vehicle that performs partial driving automation.
  • determine whether such information includes terminology as defined by SAE international in Recommended Practice Report J3016 or alternative terminology


American Vision for Safer Transportation Through Advancement of Revolutionary Technology Act (AV START)

The AV START act was written in response to the SELF Driving Act and includes four main sections. 

  1. Expansion of Federal Preemption
  2. Updates to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS)
  3. Exemptions from FMVSS
  4. A Federal Automated Vehicles Advisory Council
State by State Legislation

All of the Following States have passed Legislation related to Autonomous/Self-Driving Vehicles:

  • Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington D.C.

The following states Governor’s have all issued Executive orders or Announced Initiatives related to Autonomous/Self-Driving Vehicles:

  • Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

(For a more in-depth view of individual states legislations and Executive orders, click here.)

Traffic Incidents/Lawsuits Involving Self Driving Cars

Nilsson v. General Motors LLC

The lawsuit filed by Oscar Nilsson against General Motors stems from an incident that took place on December 7, 2017, in San Francisco, California. On the said date, Mr. Nilsson was riding his motorcycle behind an autonomous Chevy Bolt (The vehicle also had a driver present). The accident occurred when the Chevy Bolt changed lanes to the left, and Mr. Nilsson began to pass the vehicle. However, the Bolt suddenly veered back into his lane and knocked him off of his motorcycle.

However, the police report filed by the San Francisco Police Department claims that Nilsson was actually at fault for the incident, as he made an “unsafe attempt to pass”.

Furthermore, a Crash report filed by the California Department of Motor Vehicles by General Motors claims that the vehicle did abort the lane change, but that as it was re-centering itself in the lane, Nilsson, who was ‘Lane-Splitting”, struck the side of the vehicle and fell off of his bike.

Class Action Lawsuit Against Tesla’s Autopilot Program

This Class Action lawsuit, which was filed in Northern California, alleges that customers who purchased Tesla Vehicles with the $5000.00 premium upgrade which included the "Autopilot 2.0" software were misleading as to its capabilities.

The plaintiffs claim that they were led to believe they were purchasing a fully self-driving automobile, that included features such as:

  • Automatic Emergency Braking
  • Collision Warnings
  • Lane Holding
  • Active Cruise Control

However, Elon Musk and Tesla have refuted these claims. In their defense, they have claimed that it was made clear before purchase that not all of the new features were yet available, and that all features were subject to regulatory approval in the jurisdiction in which the owner lives. 

Joshua Brown Death – Tesla

In May 2016, Joshua Brown was riding in his autonomous Tesla Model S when he collided with an 18-wheeler in Florida. The cause of the crash was due to the autopilot software’s inability to detect the Semi-Truck next to it because of its height and the fact that there was a glare from the sun.

This was the first confirmed death attributed to Tesla’s Autopilot software. In order to prevent another incident, Tesla issued a software update to fix the issue by improving the vehicle’s Radar Technology. 

Gao Yaning Death – Tesla

Gao Yaning was killed in January 2016 when his Model S rear-ended a street sweeper in the province of Hebei in Northeastern China. After an investigation, it was determined that there was no evidence of the brakes being applied, and it is believed the vehicle was in Autopilot mode at the time of the accident.

Gao Yaning's father, Gao Jubin filed a lawsuit for $1500.00 against the Tesla Car Dealer that sold them the vehicle, claiming that they failed in their responsibility to properly inform buyers on the autopilot features and its potential defects.

Elaine Herzberg Death - Uber

Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old woman, was struck and killed by an autonomous car in March 2018 in Tempe, Arizona as she attempted to cross Curry Rd on foot. At the time of the accident, the vehicle had an emergency backup driver at the wheel.

The vehicle involved in the accident was a Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicle that was being operated by Uber, although there were no passengers in the vehicle at the time.

An investigation by the Tempe Police Department determined that the vehicle was traveling at 40mph at the time of the accident, and did not appear to have slowed down before impact. 

Liability and Legal Concerns Regarding Self Driving Vehicles

When trying to interpret new legislation regarding Automated Driving vehicles, there are many questions that must be answered. One of the most important concepts to understand is the difference between Semi-Autonomous Vehicles and Fully-Autonomous Vehicles.

In a Semi-Autonomous vehicle, the Human Driver is always expected to share some responsibility for any incident that occurs.

In Fully-Autonomous Vehicles, the Human is considered a backup, and the Self Driving Software is in control.

The difference between Semi and Fully-Autonomous vehicles leads to further questions regarding liability if an accident occurs. Who is responsible for the incident, what percentage are they responsible for, and who must provide compensation. (More information on Liability and Fault.)

In cases that involve Self Driving Vehicles, liability could rest with many parties, such as:

  • The Driver of the Vehicle
  • The Car Manufacturer
  • The Self-Driving Software Developer
  • The Parts Manufacturer

If one is able to determine that one of the aforementioned entities is responsible for the accident, then their percentage of fault must then be decided, which could further complicate legal resolutions.

Investigating accidents to determine amounts of fault will be an entirely new process, as self-driving vehicles do not act/react the way that a human driver would.

Investigators will also have new types of information available to them in these cases, such as data from the vehicle including video, GPS coordinates, Sensor readings, and other technology new to the Auto Industry.

As you can see, until there are more cases that can set a precedent, and government agencies are able to develop more legislation, questions of liability will remain when it comes to Accidents involving Self-Driving Vehicles.

It may turn out that some of the decisions in the cases listed earlier in this article become the main precedents in Self Driving Vehicles laws. Only time will tell.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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