Hypothetical: A Google Self-Driving Car is stationary at a traffic signal in Amherst, Massachusetts. At the same time, a Tesla Model S, utilizing its “Autopilot” feature, is traveling on the same road at a constant velocity of 65 miles per hour, the posted speed limit. If the Tesla fails to stop and crashes into the Google Self-Driving Car, who is liable?
The above hypothetical presents quite a few legal questions. First, Massachusetts laws do not currently allow the statewide operation of autonomous vehicles on state roadways. A bill sponsored by Brian A. Joyce (Senate Bill No. 1867) to legalize the operation of autonomous vehicles in Massachusetts is pending before the Senate Committee on Transportation. However, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation appears hesitant to embrace the growing demand for autonomous vehicles, especially following the death of Joshua Brown, who was killed in May 2016 when his Autonomous Tesla crashed into a tractor-trailer at 65 miles per hour without applying the brakes. On the other hand, while MassDOT cautiously waits for more information about autonomous vehicles, the Massachusetts highway safety director, Jeff Larason, commented that the Tesla fatality, although a “‘horrible tragedy,’ should not undermine the good that accident-avoidance technology might achieve.”
The second issue is the principle question of liability; simply, who is liable in the event of an autonomous vehicle collision? Liability would largely depend on whether human error played a role in the collision. Considering the most recent autonomous vehicle accident—which occurred on September 30, 2016 and involved a Tesla and a German bus—almost every car crash involving an autonomous car was due largely to human error. In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, human error accounts for approximately 94% of all autonomous car accidents. Thus, without more facts about the actions of the operators (or lack thereof) in the above-scenario, it is difficult to determine liability.
If human error accounts for almost all autonomous car accidents, will there be a decline in motor vehicle accidents as autonomous and accident-avoidance technologies evolve and become more commonplace? Interestingly, some legal experts predict that as a result of these technologies, we will see a large decline in traffic accidents and correspondingly, in tort claims. Some view that the purported decline in traffic accidents will mean that lawyers whose practices largely depend on auto accident claims may need to find another field of practice.
Alexi Davies, Obviously Drivers Are Already Abusing Tesla’s Autopilot, Wired, Oct. 22, 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/10/obviously-drivers-are-already-abusing-teslas-autopilot/.
Bill Vlasic & Neal E. Boudette, As U.S. Investigates Fatal Tesla Crash, Company Defends Autopilot System, N.Y. Times, Jul. 12, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/13/business/tesla-autopilot-fatal-crash-investigation.html?_r=0.
Hiawatha Bray, Without legislation, robotic cars can’t be tested on Mass. Roads, Boston Globe, Jul. 4, 2016, https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2016/07/03/without-legislation-robotic-cars-can-tested-mass-roads/NlGzpVSfIWbxHEOUcOPNiM/story.html.
Pat Murphy, Self-driving cars to usher in new age for PI lawyer, R.I. Lawyers Weekly, Sep. 29, 2016, http://masslawyersweekly.com/2016/09/29/self-driving-cars-to-usher-in-new-age-for-pi-lawyers/.
Reuters, Tesla Autopilot not to blame for bus accident in Germany, company says, Guardian, Sep. 30, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/30/tesla-autopilot-bus-crash-germany.