The advent of the self-driving vehicle promises to revolutionize transportation. As the technology gets adopted across the spectrum, from ride services to interstate trucking, accidents involving self-driving vehicles will inevitably happen. Just this month a self-driving SUV operated by the ridesharing company Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. When such accidents happen, the question of legal liability will always arise.
How self-driving cars work
Autonomous vehicles operate using a sophisticated system of sensors that are designed to continuously evaluate the space around the vehicle. The vehicle’s onboard computers interpret a wide range of data collected by cameras, radar, and LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) equipment to ensure that the vehicle can react to changing environmental conditions, including other vehicles, pedestrians, and roadway debris. The systems are designed to work in all conditions: day and night, wet and dry.
The tragic accident in Tempe shows that despite their sophistication these systems still can fail to account for foreseeable road conditions. In Tempe the pedestrian who was struck and killed was slowly crossing the road while pushing a bike. The pedestrian wasn’t behaving erratically, and the car’s system should have detected her and reacted accordingly. Uber’s policy governing its self-driving cars required the vehicle’s driver (dubbed a “safety driver”) to be in control and ready to respond to an emergency at all times, but the driver was apparently not paying attention when the accident happened.
Who is liable in self-driving car crashes in Nevada?
When a self-driving car is at fault for an accident, as appears to have been the case in Tempe, there are a number of potential defendants. Nevada law allows autonomous vehicles to be tested and operated within the state provided that they are self-certified by manufacturers, developers, and operators as meeting statutory and regulatory requirements. When something goes wrong, there are several potential parties from whom a victim could pursue compensation for injuries:
- The operator (if any) and/or owner. Even though autonomous vehicles drive themselves, they often have a human operator behind the wheel. Nevada law requires that such vehicles be equipped with safety systems to alert the human operator in the event of a system failure, and the means to disable the autonomous system when necessary. NRS 482A.080. Like all drivers, operators are required to carry liability insurance. NRS 485.185, NAC 482A.050. In cases where the car is owned by a business, like Uber, the business may be legally liable as well.
- The designer(s) of the autonomous system. Autonomous systems can be installed in vehicles that were not originally designed with the systems in mind. When a system fails to operate as intended the designer and manufacturer of the system may be held liable under a theory of products liability. Even more than a case against the driver/operator, a products liability case will probably involve complex, technical questions, like how the specific conditions at the time of an accident may have affected the performance of sensor systems. Products liability cases may need to include a range of parties, as different developers may be involved in building the components of an autonomous system (e.g., the car’s “brain” might work properly, but the “eyes” are defective).
- The auto manufacturer. Nevada law provides that the original manufacturer of an automobile can’t be held liable for damages caused by the failure of an after-market autonomous system that is installed by a third party. NRS482A.090. But if the manufacturer was involved in the system’s design or construction, for example by incorporating components to facilitate installation, plaintiffs’ lawyers might explore its culpability for the accident.
GGRM is watching the legal landscape for self-driving cars
The attorneys at the law firm of Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez have broad experience with personal injury and accident cases. We are keeping close tabs on the evolution of autonomous vehicles and how they may be involved in accidents on Nevada’s roads. If you have questions about how self-driving cars may impact you, call us today at 702-388-4476 or ask us to reach out to you through our contact page.