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Accidents and Self-Driving Cars: Who is responsible?

Companies from Silicon Valley to Detroit to Stuttgart are currently working to replace drivers with computers. Uber, amongst others, are road testing their designs and one of their autonomous vehicles recently struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. In cases such as these, who is ultimately responsible for the crash? Right now, that’s an open-ended question, as autonomous vehicles are still operating in a legal gray area.

With a computer in the driver’s seat, the test driver acts as an observer to ensure the car does not hurt anyone. It would appear as if the driver, and potentially his employer, is ultimately liable for the injury, simply because there is no other legal framework. Ultimately, we may see this become a matter of products liability. Was the product unreasonably dangerous from the beginning? Certain automakers, such as Volvo, have already said it would take responsibility for accidents caused by its vehicles when driven in an autonomous mode.

Every death and injury is tragic. Police have released the footage from the Tempe collision and it’s tough to watch. In this case, it appears as if the woman was crossing an unlit street at night, wearing dark clothes, outside the crosswalk. If this were to happen in Maryland, recovery for the injured party would be quite difficult. Maryland has what is known as “contributory negligence”, which means if the injured party is at all negligent (as little as 1% at fault), their negligence may prohibit them from recovering from another negligent party.

Click here for a Forbes article detailing BMW’s reaction to the driverless cars and Tempe collision.

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