While examination of potential autonomous vehicle liability has heightened in recent years, questions remain as to how to attribute fault in an incident involving self-driving vehicles. Two recent incidents involving autonomous vehicles raise questions among insurers and manufacturers.
In January 2018, a driver whose blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit claimed his Tesla was on autopilot mode when police found him sleeping in the stopped car on the San Francisco Bay Bridge. No one was injured, and Tesla has not confirmed whether the car was in fact on autopilot mode when authorities found the man.
A spokesperson for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board told the New York Times in a statement, “Autopilot requires full driver engagement at all times.” It remains to be seen how quickly the level of human driver engagement will change with time, but many anticipate driver control will significantly decrease as autonomous technology develops. Any change in human driver engagement will affect how liability is attributed in future incidents.
In an earlier incident in San Francisco, a motorcyclist injured in a collision involving a self-driving car filed the first personal injury lawsuit involving an autonomous vehicle. Plaintiff, traveling on a motorcycle at about 17mph, attempted to pass a 2016 Chevrolet Bolt traveling in self-driving mode at about 12mph. The self-driving vehicle began to switch lanes, but abandoned its merge when the minivan in front of it slowed down. While the car was re-centering itself, the motorcyclist attempted to enter the lane the vehicle had initially tried to vacate. Plaintiff collided with the side of the self-driving vehicle.
Plaintiff brought the complaint against General Motors, the manufacturer of the vehicle. While the vehicle was occupied by an individual in the driver’s seat, it was in self-driving mode at the time of the incident.
Plaintiff claims General Motors breached a duty of care it owed in having its autonomous vehicle obey traffic laws and regulations, alleging the vehicle drove in a negligent manner and claiming plaintiff’s injuries to be the result of such negligence. Notably, plaintiff is not advancing a products liability claim against General Motors and has not sued the human operator. Plaintiff claims he sustained injuries to his neck and shoulder in this accident, which requires lengthy treatment and has forced him to take disability leave from work.
Personal injury lawsuits are sure to become more frequent with the rise in everyday use of autonomous vehicles. The dawn of autonomous vehicles brings forth a well-anticipated challenge for insurers. Tyson & Mendes’ Autonomous Vehicles practice group understands the liability challenges these types of suits present to insurers and manufacturers, and is prepared to defend these cases as they become more commonplace.