Automation in Motor Vehicles and the Rise of Products Liability in Car Accident Cases.

Over the past 10 years, we here in America and elsewhere have seen the rise of autonomous vehicles. The most prominent name in this field is, arguably, Tesla which is led by Elon Musk. Tesla has released a line of high-performance, electric vehicles which boast one of the leading self-drive systems in the industry. This article will briefly discuss the effect of self-driving cars on car accident cases.

Usually, when someone is injured in a car accident, one of the first questions the law must answer is, “Who was at-fault for the accident?” The answer to this question determines who must pay for the injuries to the other party. However, this entire situation is complicated if the “at-fault party” was using the AI of their self-driving car when the accident occurred. Ask yourself this question, “If the AI was in control of the vehicle, is the driver really at-fault?” Assuming the driver was doing everything correctly, wouldn’t the AI/vehicle be at-fault for the accident?

Legally, when a person accidentally harms another, that person is responsible for the injury. This is called negligence. To have a claim for negligence, the person who was harmed must be able to show the at-fault party 1) breached a duty of care and that 2) the breach caused harm to that person. Historically, car companies are not considered to have a duty to people harmed in car accidents because the company has no control over the way the car is driven. It is the driver who owes a duty to others to drive the vehicle with reasonable care.

In other words, the law looks at the driver of the car as responsible, because the car cannot drive itself. One of the reasons for this is that, to drive a car, drivers must make numerous decisions every time they get behind the wheel. Decisions like when to slow down, change lanes, put on the blinkers, and accelerate are all made on the fly by the driver as a result of different conditions presented to him while driving. An example is when a car slows down in front of him, he presses the breaks to slow down to the appropriate speed. This would all change, if the car started to make most or all of these decisions based on an AI system within the case.

Car companies are responsible for making products that aren’t defective. That would include any AI system. Problems begin when the AI makes a decision, independent of the driver, and causes an accident. Let’s say, hypothetically, that a car company put a “self driving” car on the road which was fully autonomous, i.e., it could fully drive itself. In this situation, the driver could sit back and read a book or answer emails. If that car caused an accident, the case would be more about the product (the AI) than it would be the driver, because the driver was expressly told that he could sit back and let the car do all the work. The driver in this situation would not be negligent because he relied on the car to drive.

In each case involving automated driving systems, a deep and thorough understanding of what the system can and can’t do is required. Since we do not have a fully autonomous vehicle, the current state of technology limits how responsible Tesla or any other automated car actually is for the accident. That said, there have already been numerous lawsuits filed against Tesla for injuries sustained during car accidents.

We live in exciting times and the developments in the tech and car industry which have allowed self-driving cars to be a reality are nothing short of amazing. While the above hypothetical is not yet a reality, it seems likely we’ll see this happen over the next 10 to 20 years.