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Who is liable in an accident with a self-driving car?

Autonomous, or self-driving, cars have been a hot topic in recent years. More and more automobile companies are adding advanced self-driving features, requiring increasingly less input from a human driver. Waymo, Google’s autonomous car subsidiary, even has a limited fleet of self-driven taxis on the road. As the technology continues to advance, drivers sharing the road with these robo-cars are wondering: what happens if I’m in an accident with one? The answer to that depends on a number of factors. 

What constitutes full autonomy?

In 2014, SAE International first published its classification system, establishing six tiers of autonomy for automobiles. In simplified terms, they look like the following:

  • Level 0: Ordinary operation of a car
  • Level 1: Cruise control
  • Level 2: Automobile handles steering, where the driver should be ready to intervene
  • Level 3: The car can request assistance as needed. The driver can be “eyes off” but should be prepared to answer the request
  • Level 4: Self-operational in certain conditions
  • Level 5: Self-operational in all conditions

The important distinction comes between levels 2 and 3. Until level 3, a driver is actively controlling some aspect of the car’s operation. At level 3, they are not controlling the automobile unless alerted.

No vehicles currently available to consumers in the United States exceed level 2. That means that because a driver’s attention is required at all times, liability is still placed on the driver in the event of an accident. There are many automobiles on the market that boast some degree of self-driving capability, such as Tesla’s Autopilot feature, but all of them stop short of claiming they completely take the reins from a human driver.

What about cars with no human driver?

There have not been many incidents involving self-driven cars. The majority of accidents on record occurred with a human in the driver seat who failed to take control before a collision. However, any self-driving automobile programs currently on the road (like the aforementioned Waymo) are technically still in a testing phase. Because of this, the company that the automobile belongs to would be responsible in the event of an accident. 

Experts claim that we should not expect level 4 automobiles like the ones deployed by Waymo to be common or even available to consumers until after the year 2040. However, we should learn more about what autonomous driving litigation looks like in the near future. Honda has begun rolling out a very limited release of their Legend sedan that meets level 3 criteria, while in Germany, Mercedes will unveil their own level 3 automobile in mid-2022.