Who Is at Fault When a Driverless Car Is in an Accident?

by JD Supra Perspectives

...the electronic data that will presumably accompany driverless cars should stay reliable and credible.

I am hopefully convinced that within the next 20 years there will be mainstream use of driverless cars on US highways. If there is an accident involving a driverless car it’s likely there will be more potentially responsible parties including the owners of the car, manufacturers, designers, software developers, etc. It sounds like a legal nightmare, right?  Not necessarily. In fact, I believe that figuring out fault may be much easier in most driverless car crashes.

Although I’m not an expert on the technology of driverless cars, I think it’s safe to assume that with this technology each and every movement would be measured, recorded, and preserved. If there is a wreck then there is likely a treasure trove of unimpeachable information on how the crash occurred. So, for example, if I’m riding shotgun in my driverless car through a green light and then I’m sideswiped by a car that’s being driven by an actual human who claims he had the red light who are you going to believe?  The human driver or Google that’s driving my car (I can only hope)?  I like my chances. And would I be at fault since I’m just along for the ride?  I don’t think so unless I somehow interfered.

“Black box” data or electronic data have already been critical in helping lawyers and the courts sort out fault in many cases, mostly commercial trucking cases where that data is regularly available.

Our firm regularly defends motor carriers and their drivers in tractor trailer crashes. We are frequently retained soon after an accident – we rush to the scene with an engineer to try and preserve the electronic data from sources including the Electronic Control Module (“ECM”) and GPS. If we’re able to capture this data it will often show us critical measurements including speed, braking, and acceleration within the minutes around the accident. If this data is available then the picture of how the accident happened often becomes clear at a very early stage.

The majority of car crashes today don’t have electronic data either because it wasn’t preserved or because it isn’t available. Fault in most car crashes today is typically decided by a jury based on the creditability of the persons involved in the wreck and perhaps witnesses, if you’re lucky. Some of the obvious problems with this type of fault determination include that memories fade (testimony is often years after the accident) and there is often self-interest when the parties give their account (believe it or not). Conversely, the electronic data that will presumably accompany driverless cars should stay reliable and credible.

One concern, however, is that as this technology develops and these cars hit the road there must be clear guidelines (and hopefully law) on preserving this data and making it readily available soon after the crash. Since this technology is quickly developing insurers, manufactures and designers should begin thinking about developing plans addressing these issues.


[JD Supra's Law Matters series asks experts for their quick take on popular news of the day, and specifically how such matters affect people in their personal or professional lives. Stay tuned for other posts in the series.

Author Chip Campbell is a trial lawyer at Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog. Based in Raleigh, he defends a wide range of lawsuits throughout North Carolina in the areas of trucking, transportation, premises liability, inadequate security, products liability, dram shop, professional liability and business disputes.]

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