Does Driverless Mean Less Responsibility?

In recent months talk regarding driverless cars has reached a fever pitch as companies continue to pour resources into creating the first consumer-ready prototypes. Uber, an established leader in the ride-sharing gig economy, is on the forefront of this movement. Although is it easy to get excited at the prospect of our cars driving us to our errands, or through rush hour traffic, recent events raise questions about the safety and responsible use of these cars.
Although reports of minor accidents early in the development of these vehicles was met with little media coverage or caution, a fatal accident on March 18th, 2018, exposes serious concerns with this new technology. Elain Herberg, a 49-year-old woman, was struck while walking her bicycle across the street in Tempe Arizona. Elain was transported to the hospital from the scene and passed away from her injuries at a local hospital. Although preliminary reports are short on details, Tempe Police Detective Lily Duran reported that the car could have been traveling approximately 40 mph in a 35 mph zone. Local authorities from the Tempe Police Department are investigating, and the National Transportation Safety Board is also pursuing it’s own investigation.

Uber offered the following statement via a spokesperson, “Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We are fully cooperating with the local authorities in their investigation of this incident.”
Despite Uber’s condolences to the family of the deceased, it is unclear if the company will accept full liability for the vehicle’s actions. Negligence in the age of driverless cars is uncharted territory, and although there has been significant speculation about how to handle driverless car accidents, very little has been incorporated into any new law.

At the time of the crash the Uber vehicle was in “self-driving mode.” Perhaps as precautionary measure, a vehicle operator was in the vehicle at the time of the crash. As of now, it is unclear how much control this operator had prior to, or at the moment of the crash. Arizona is well known as an early adopter of self-driving cars. In fact, just this month the Governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey signed an executive order allowing for self-driving cars to be used on state roads without a human driver behind the wheel. A few factors influenced this decision and include; Arizona’s dry, static climate and the large population of nearby retired individuals who are expected to benefit from this technology.

In this instance, the self-driving car that caused this accident was owned and being tested by Uber. Other major manufacturers, such as Google and GM have analogous test models and are still investing heavily in the development of autonomous vehicle tech.

This technology raises a myriad of legal issues. Is there a products liability case if something inherent in the vehicle causes an accident? If the vehicle acts in accordance with it’s programming and an unforeseen variable causes a wreck, is the operator negligent if they do not adapt to this variable? Most self-driving cars have an onboard camera system that shows all angles of a vehicle’s surroundings. Will this affect how accident reports are constructed? If a crash is imminent will a self-driving car take action to save it’s own occupants over other cars? Pedestrians?

It can be scary and almost impossible to approach this issue on your own. If you or someone you know has been in an accident with a self-driving car you need not only an experienced attorney, but a law firm that is willing to dive into unexplored areas of law on behalf of their clients. As mentioned, there is little law on this topic and you can be sure that major corporations will fight tooth and nail to protect their investments. If you want a law firm that is unafraid to take on the big guy, call Groth Law Firm.