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The liability of driverless vehicles

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With self-driving cars recently making their way into headlines, it's easy to ask the question: who’s to blame when an autonomous vehicle is involved in an automobile accident, the driver who isn’t driving or the carmaker? As we try to determine where responsibilities lie, it's important to keep in mind that experts might not have the answer just yet. 

In April 2021, a Tesla Model S crashed, caught fire and killed two men in the vehicle. There are still questions around if someone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash, but all seatbelts were found to be unbuckled and the steering wheel was reported as “deformed.” Back in 2018, a self-driving Uber fatally struck a pedestrian, which served as a harsh reminder that self-driving technology is still in its experimental stage and the government is still trying to figure out how to regulate it. 

The National Transportation Safety Board expressed concerns that there aren't clear rules in the U.S. about how companies should ensure drivers pay attention when driver-assistance features are engaged. In addition, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that drivers using adaptive cruise control were more likely to set a target speed that was over the limit because of the perception that the system enhanced their safety and were at a 10% higher risk of a fatal crash compared to manual drivers. 

Despite these uncertainties, carmakers, carriers and lawmakers are still just as excited about self-driving technology as ever before — they’re just learning to work through and around the doubt that comes with these new technological advancements.

While NTSB and IIHS’s concerns are valid, some self-driving car advocates argue that these safety concerns shouldn’t deter companies from investing and advancing in the technology. Senators Thune and Peters for example, introduced a bill in April 2021 that would provide the automotive industry with the tools they need to safely test and deploy automated vehicles across the nation and provide an extra preventative measure. The bill was rejected in June, but Thune still hopes to find ways to boost funding to autonomous vehicles.

Insurance carriers like Travelers and tech giants like Google’s parent Alphabet have jumped in the autonomous vehicle market by investing in driverless vehicle testing and development as well, to determine how current coverage could change and affect the insurance underwriting process with autonomous cars. Manufacturers like Tesla and General Motors have even started offering car insurance coverage at the point of sale, which allows carmakers to collect data on how their driver assistance programs operate even when a human driver is still at the wheel. 

Experts also suggest Congress should hold off on adding new regulations for self-driving cars since the technology is still being figured out, and creating restrictions around the technology will only prohibit further development, testing and research. Ariel Wolf, general counsel to the Self-Driving Coalition, said that despite the intense debate over legal issues, self-driving cars have the potential to drastically reduce the number of car crashes and deaths on U.S. roads.

Even though the liability of an accident involving a driverless vehicle remains on a case-by-case basis, it seems as though the responsibilities of the carmaker and the car driver will only get clearer as car technology advances.

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Jasmine Kim
Jasmine KimContent Writer

Jasmine is The Zebra’s newsroom content writer. With a background in journalism, she reports on breaking news, trends, mergers and acquisitions, and financial reports related to the insurance industry.