Driverless cars in California raise interesting issues of accident liability


The time is coming when self-driving cars will be on California roads. The new technology will have people wondering, who is to blame if there is no driver?

Just weeks ago, Google announced that cars driven by computers – not humans – will soon be available for testing on California roads. The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) already has rules in place that allow all companies who develop the autonomous vehicles to use them on public roads.

For a nominal fee, developers of driverless cars can register 10 vehicles and 20 drivers on an annual basis, allowing them to test the vehicles in real-life situations. There are strict regulations, however, including the following:

  • A driver must always be in the driver’s seat when on public roads.
  • The driver must be able to take over the wheel at all times.
  • The manufacturer must maintain $5 million in liability insurance coverage.
  • Each driver must be licensed for three or more years, must not have caused an accident resulting in a personal injury or wrongful death, must not have been found guilty of driving under the influence (DUI) in the past 10 years and must take special driving classes.

Concerns with driverless cars

Google claims that autonomous cars will be safer than vehicles driven by human drivers, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and insurance companies are not so sure. The NHTSA is currently studying ways to regulate self-driving vehicles, hoping to establish federal guidelines regarding the technology within the next few years.

There is some concern within the federal agency about letting the developers prove road-worthiness based solely on performance – whether they effectively avoid accidents, navigate safely around obstacles and successfully process the ever-changing circumstances that come with driving. It is yet to be determined if the NHTSA will also regulate the underlying software used in the vehicles as well.

Auto insurance carriers across the nation already have concerns about liability issues when self-driving cars are involved in motor vehicle accidents. When a pedestrian, passenger or another driver are injured in a car crash with a driverless vehicle, will the owner of that vehicle be to blame or will the manufacturer?

Plans for the future

Google has publicly stated that the next step with autonomous cars will be the removal of steering wheels and brake pedals, taking drivers completely out of the picture. A panic button will be the only option for passengers – since there are no drivers – when they need to make an emergency stop.

While the thought of summoning your car with a smartphone app may be appealing, the potential legal issues may keep such cars off the roads. Google says the technology will be ready in three to five years, but the insurance companies and the NHTSA claim driverless cars are still 10 to 15 years off.

For the time being, humans are still in the drivers’ seats of a vast majority of motor vehicles. Whether or not self-driving cars will be available to all drivers in the future, that does not change the reality of daily motor vehicle accidents across the state.

If you or someone you love is involved in an accident caused by the negligence of another driver, a defective auto part or dangerous roads, consult an experienced personal injury attorney. A lawyer knowledgeable about issues of liability can help you and your family obtain compensation for your losses.

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