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Self-driving cars, once a fixture of sci-fi and
futuristic movies and television shows, are now becoming a reality in the
United States thanks to forward-thinking companies like Tesla.
Proponents of self-driving cars point to their safety and reliability and consider them the way of the future for the world’s roadways.
Although the technology is still very much in development, there have already been some concerns regarding the regulations that should be in place for self-driving vehicles, and how to determine liability if one of the vehicles is involved in a crash.
First fatal accident in Florida
The questions of liability and safety related to self-driving vehicles sprang to the forefront in the summer of 2016, when the very first fatal accident involving a self-driving vehicle occurred in Williston, Florida.
Tesla vehicles had been put through millions of miles of tests without a serious accident and a negligible number of at-fault collisions. But the May 7 accident in Florida prompted federal regulators to open a formal investigation into the incident and begin to push for guidelines for autonomous vehicles.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the crash occurred when a tractor-trailer turned left in front of the Tesla and the car did not apply its brakes. The 40-year-old driver of the vehicle had the car in autopilot at the time. Neither the driver nor the autopilot system noticed the tractor-trailer coming, which Tesla said was likely due to the truck’s white side blending in with a brightly lit sky.
There were some questions regarding the driver’s attentiveness, but the main issue that arose out of the case was the sudden doubt as to whether autonomous vehicles are capable of making split-second, lifesaving decisions at fast speeds. The NHTSA investigation revealed no defects in the design or performance of the autopilot.
Bus accident in Las Vegas
This November, a self-driving bus hailed as the very first autonomous shuttle pilot project crashed two hours after its launch in Las Vegas. Investigators indicated the human driver of the other vehicle (a semi-truck) was at fault, and no injuries occurred.
Despite the lack of fault apportioned to the self-driving bus, the incident once again raised questions as to the safety of autonomous vehicles. The timing was also auspicious—in September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Self Drive Act that, if passed by the Senate, would exempt vehicle manufacturers from certain federal and state regulations and allow for the deployment of up to 100,000 test vehicles each year.
Liability in accidents involving autonomous vehicles is still very much an evolving field, and there is not much precedent established. For now, as companies continue to test their models, they must be prepared to assume liability in crashes these vehicles cause.
If you have any questions about proving liability in an accident, meet with a knowledgeable New York car accident lawyer at Robinson & Yablon, P.C.