Makers of autonomous cars tout their safety compared to those driven entirely by human beings. However, in the event of an accident involving a self-driving vehicle, the question of who is legally liable does not yet have a satisfactory answer as legislatures and courts attempt to catch up with the new technology.
The answer may depend partly on the level of the car’s autonomy. In other words, the issue may be the amount of control that a human driver retains over the vehicle.
According to one theory, there are five levels of automotive autonomy. A fully autonomous car, i.e., a Level 5, would be one that handled all the tasks of driving itself. Hypothetically, it would not even require a driver in the vehicle to operate it.
Level 5 autonomous cars do not exist yet. However, if technology advances to that point, it is not yet clear who would be responsible for any accidents that involved them. It could be the owner of the autonomous vehicle, the tech developers or the automakers, either alone or in combination with one another.
Semi-autonomous cars occupy Level 3. Unlike Level 5 autonomous vehicles, Level 3 cars are not purely theoretical. Though they utilize Advanced Driver Assistance Systems that handle some of the tasks of driving, the expectation is still that the driver remains in control.
Car accidents that involve vehicles with some level of autonomy often occur because the drivers do not understand the expectation that they still maintain some control of the vehicle. A misunderstanding of the ADAS’ capabilities lulls them into a false sense of security, and they mistakenly believe that they can safely remove their eyes from the road and/or their hands from the wheel.
Thus far, the easy answer has been to hold the driver liable for accidents in a partially automated car, much like the captain of a ship would be responsible for the sinking of a vessel. As technology continues to evolve, however, it is unclear whether this standard will hold.