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Self-Driving Cars--in an Accident, Who is at Fault?

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San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo thinks autonomous vehicles (AVs), aka self-driving cars, will reduce congestion, improve traffic safety and improve transportation and mobility for seniors, disabled individuals and other disadvantaged groups.

That's why Liccardo reportedly reached out to the private sector to figure out how to integrate AVs into its transportation network. Among other goals, the Mayor envisions a driverless link between the CalTrain Diridon Station and the San Jose International Airport.

Like many, Liccardo considers AVs safer than human-driven vehicles. Humans do make a lot of driving mistakes. A 2015 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed that human error, including drunk driving, caused 94 percent of all motor vehicle accidents. Considering more than 35,000 people died and more than two million were injured in auto accidents that year, that's a lot of lives saved.

Fewer accidents means fewer hospital and emergency room visits. A 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report stated that about 2.5 million people visited the emergency room for motor vehicle accident-related injuries that year. With fewer people in the emergency room, will that mean we won't have to wait four hours to get care? One can hope!

In a 2013 Forbes article Chunka Mui argued that with more AVs on the road, "personal injury attorneys would see car-related cases all but disappear." This may affect lawyers' workloads, but more importantly, it would impact the insurance industry. If we're not driving, would we even need personal auto insurance?

The question of who to insure brings up another interesting point: in an accident involving an AV, who or what is liable? If the individual inside the AV is a passenger, and the AV causes an accident, what exactly caused the accident? Does the other driver file a claim against the auto manufacturer, the computer programmer, or the AV designer? And who or what is liable if two AVs collide with each other?

Google, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz have said they would accept full liability if their cars are involved in a crash when they are in autonomous mode. This isn't much different than when a traditional auto manufacturer stands behind its product in the event of a malfunction or defect, but it shows promise that AV manufacturers won't evade liability.

Whether we like it or not, self-driving cars look like they're here to stay. Expect some changes in product liability and personal injury law as more of these vehicles take to the open road.

Have you been injured in a serious auto accident? Contact an experienced personal injury lawyer for a free consultation.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

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David G. Smith
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Oakland, CA 94612

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