The first reported fatality caused by a “self-driving” car on a public road occurred in Tempe, Arizona, this past Sunday, and we are left to ask “who’s responsible?” As reported by CNN, the autonomous car (meaning, it was driving on its own), which occupied by a human test driver (as an apparent safeguard), struck and killed a pedestrian who was walking her bicycle across the street. Although unrelated, the 44-year-old test driver has a prior felony conviction, which is not going to help Uber’s case. However, Uber is accustomed to sitting in the hot seat having dealt with other self-driving car crashes, avoiding scrutiny, and passing the buck on corporate responsibility. In fact, their reputation has become increasingly synonymous with scandal. The Tempe accident is currently under investigation by the local police and the National Transportation Safety Board.
Welcome to the Wild West of self-driving cars
In this, the early stage of self-driving cars, the autonomous vehicles remain widely unregulated. It’s the wild, wild west of transportation, and companies like Uber are operating on a trial by error basis which has proven to be dangerous, and in this case, fatal. The federal government has delegated regulation to the states, and to date, no standard regulation has been adopted. This leaves us with many questions.
Accidents caused by self-driving cars present a multitude of liability issues. Typically, the driver of a car causing an accident is responsible for it, but what happens when there is no driver? With each self-driving car, there is a host of potential entities who could be responsible: designers, developers, engineers, manufacturers, owners, and a laundry list of others. Determining liability will be a long and complicated process.
Should Uber be held responsible for its cars’ crashes?
Car-share companies, like Uber, have the resources to invest in self-driving cars and get them on the road, making them accessible to consumers. While it is unclear who can be held liable for self-driving ride-share cars, determining the liability for collisions caused by humans working for ride-share services is a routine process. The ride-share service is typically held liable for the action of the employee drivers. Uber and Lyft, the most well-known ride-share services in Massachusetts, both carry insurance policies covering motor vehicle collisions. This coverage is separate and apart from drivers’ own personal motor vehicle insurance.
As clear-cut as regular ride-sharing liability typically is, it will be quite some time before we establish standards of liability for self-driving ride-share cars. But with the increasing number of ride-share related crashes, we must move with urgency towards creating these norms. Suddenly the teenager who is sending Snapchat messages while changing lanes on the highway doesn’t seem so dangerous.
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