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Potential Liability for Drivers of Self-Driving Cars

Potential Liability for Drivers of Self-Driving Cars

Over the next few years self-driving cars are going to become more common on Nevada’s roads as the technology improves and vehicles become affordable for a wider swath of consumers. The convenience of letting the car do most of the driving is undeniable, but as recent events have shown, autonomous vehicles aren’t perfect. Self-driving cars have been involved in a range of accidents, including slow-speed collisions and, recently, a fatal accident involving a pedestrian in Arizona. Such accidents will raise new and interesting legal questions for insurers, lawyers, and the courts to consider. Among the important questions that must be considered is the potential liability of a “driver” of a self-driving car that is involved in an accident.

Nevada law requires operators to stay attentive

The rules governing self-driving cars in Nevada are still in their infancy. Designed to allow developers to test the technology, the rules are far from fleshed out. Aside from a few skeletal rules, like insurance and licensing requirements, there is still a lot of work to be done that will be based, in large part, on the results of current experiments.

One of the oddities about autonomous vehicles is that they don’t have “drivers” in the conventional sense. The person in the driver’s seat is neither a driver nor a passive passenger. Instead, he or she is deemed to be the car’s “operator,” with responsibilities for keeping an eye on what the car is doing. The concept of the operator is a new one with seemingly contradictory features. Even though Nevada law recognizes that an operator “is not required to actively drive an autonomous vehicle” (NRS 482A.200) an operator is still expected to be ready to take control in the event that the autonomous system fails (NRS 482A.080).

Existing law places the onus on the designers of autonomous systems to ensure that the systems will “alert the human operator to take manual control of the autonomous vehicle if a failure of the autonomous technology has been detected and such failure affects the ability of the autonomous technology to operate safely the autonomous vehicle.” This relies upon the system to recognize its own failure and alert the operator in time to prevent an accident.

Scenarios of operator liability

Accidents where a self-driving car is at fault can be sorted into several categories, each with varying degrees of potential liability for the operator/driver:

  • Accidents while the operator is in full manual control. Obviously, if the operator is driving and the car’s autonomous system disabled, the fact that the car has the system onboard won’t be relevant to the analysis.
  • Accidents that occur after the autonomous system warns the operator to take control, but before the operator can do so. It seems inevitable that cases involving this situation will come up. Expecting operators to stay alert and aware of what’s happening around the car at all times seems unrealistic at best. Operators are likely to be looking at their phones, reading a book, or even dozing. Regardless, an operator who fails to react on time to a system warning may be committing negligence and may be liable in the same way as though he or she was distracted while driving a conventional car.
  • Accidents that occur while the autonomous system is in full control. As happened in the fatal crash in Arizona, an autonomous system may not recognize its own failures in time to prevent an accident. Again, the operator is supposed to be watching what’s happening, but if the system is active, is the operator really “in control?” The answer isn’t clear, and likely will depend on the specific facts of the accident and a range of technical questions about the system itself. In these cases, the designer of the autonomous system may be at least partly responsible for the accident.

GGRM is an auto accident law firm in Las Vegas

For over 45 years the attorneys at Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez have represented clients who have been injured in auto accidents. We are closely monitoring the introduction of autonomous vehicles on Nevada’s roads. If you have questions about how a self-driving car may affect your liability, call us today for a free attorney consultation at 702-388-4476, or reach us through our contact page.