Who is at fault if a driverless car has an accident?

With technology companies like Google, Uber, Tesla and Intel working on driverless cars, and manufacturers like Nissan currently testing them on UK roads, it feels like it is now inevitable that sometime in the not-too-distant future our roads will be dominated by self-driving cars.

A recent survey has also found that UK drivers are becoming more welcoming of driverless cars, but despite the ongoing work to develop the technology there is one question that still needs to be answered: who is at fault if a driverless car has an accident?

Google self-driving car

A Google self-driving car in action

One of the apparent advantages of self-driving cars is that they would be a ‘safer’ option, and so far the statistics bear that out. However, accidents will never be completely eradicated from our roads – and as if to prove that point one of Google’s driverless cars had an accident just last month.

The accident happened in California, US, and involved the self-driving car pulling out in front of a bus that was travelling at 15mph. As a road traffic accident it is pretty unremarkable, but because it involved a self-driving car it does raise some interesting questions about liability.

In response to the accident a Google said in a statement:

“We clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved, there wouldn’t have been a collision.

“That said, our test driver believed the bus was going to slow or stop to allow us to merge into the traffic, and that there would be sufficient space to do that.”

In a more detailed accident report submitted to the DMV, Google gave a clearer explanation of the accident:

“The Google AV (autonomous vehicle) test driver saw the bus approaching in the left side mirror but believed the bus would stop or slow to allow the Google AV to continue.

“Approximately three seconds later, as the Google AV was re-entering the centre of the lane it made contact with the side of the bus.”

So basically the Google driverless car changed lanes into the path of the bus – which would normally mean they are liable for the accident. But what Google said next suggests they would resist accepting full liability for the accident:

“From now on, our cars will more deeply understand that buses (and other large vehicles) are less likely to yield to us than other types of vehicles, and we hope to handle situations like this more gracefully in the future.”

The DMV are yet to rule who is at fault for the incident, but the fact that it is not a clear cut answer is worrying for the future. Would a compensation claim be brought against the owner, the manufacturer or the software provider of the self-driving car?

How the law currently stands

Currently the law still focuses very much on human drivers, placing responsibility on them to control the vehicle at all times and have the physical and mental ability to prevent accidents. In general terms, the driver is always held liable for the actions of the vehicle.

There are some exceptions to this though which could be a hint as to where the law may turn with the onset of self-driving cars. For instance, legal liability can depend on whether an accident was due to the negligence of the driver or a defect with the car (e.g. brakes failing) – and sometimes negligence could be apportioned to both i.e. if a driver is relying on the self-parking function of the car then they could reasonably be expected to have a duty of care to look out for hazards.

Duty of care

In terms of the driver’s responsibility, the law currently states that they should take the same amount of car regardless of how technologically advanced the car is. Drivers have to be able to demonstrate reasonable levels of competence, and if they fail to adequately monitor their car then they are in breach of their ‘duty of care’. If we were to assume that the same duty of care would apply with self-driving cars then it would mean that the ‘passengers’ may be held to some degree of liability in the event of an accident.



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