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When AI Crashes--and Kills


The inevitable happened: a fatal accident involving an autonomous vehicle. On March 18, 2018, in Tempe Arizona, a pedestrian was struck and killed by an Uber vehicle engaged in autonomous mode. The vehicle had a licensed driver aboard at the time, who was not found to be impaired. The pedestrian was walking her bike across the road, at approximately 10pm at night, not at a crosswalk or intersection.

The accident set off alarm bells throughout the automotive and tech industries. In response to the tragedy, Uber suspended the testing of its self-driving vehicles in Arizona, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Many questions were raised about legal liability: does it rest with the car owner or manufacturer, the licensed driver, the software maker, or a combination of these parties?

The accident and the legal liability issues should not be surprising; autonomous vehicle technology has been in development for a long time, and while self-driving cars are much safer than their human-driven counterparts, they are not foolproof. What is surprising is that they are on the roads without a comprehensive regulatory framework being in place.


The Georgia legislature passed and Governor Deal signed into law SB 219, which allows self-driving vehicles on the road without a licensed driver as long as the vehicle is fully autonomous and the automated driving system is engaged. A minimum liability insurance coverage of 250% of minimum limits for human drivers is required.

Waymo, an autonomous car development company and subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., announced on March 9, 2018, that it will begin testing autonomous semi-trucks with human backup drivers in the Atlanta area within the month. Waymo also plans to map the streets of Atlanta and then deploy a fleet of driverless vehicles, again with a backup driver inside, for testing purposes.

Yet even with fully autonomous vehicles and semi-trucks (with backup drivers) on the roads, there is still no single set of standards for testing, licensing and liability. Most states that have laws which address self-driving cars do so in a way that encourages the development of the industry; the laws do not regulate safety or specify liability. States may be waiting for the insurance industry to take the lead, but automotive and technology manufacturers are lobbying for a uniform and reliable regulatory landscape.


Legal experts argue that tort law, specifically products liability, may provide a good model for the legal liability associated with autonomous vehicles. The technology operating self-driving cars is, after all, a product, just as automatic braking, anti-lane drift, and self-parking functions are products. If an accident occurs while the vehicle is in fully autonomous mode, it is likely that the manufacturer of the technology and/or the car—they may be one and the same—would bear the liability for the accident. Thus, most experts predict a shift from driver liability to product liability, making the automotive industry the primary liability stakeholders.

Some key legal issues beyond accident liability are cybersecurity and privacy. The amount of data collected by an autonomous vehicle is staggering, and as we have seen with the recent scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, the potential misuse of that data is frightening. The need for protection of this data before widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles is paramount.


Many of today’s motor vehicles feature semi-autonomous technology, as noted above; self-parking, lane-keeping assist, obstacle detection and automatic braking, are just a few examples. Motor vehicles are becoming increasingly data-driven in an effort to bolster safety and efficiency. However, when these products malfunction, accidents can and do happen. It is important to remember that manufacturers of the vehicles and the software inside them are liable for damages and injuries resulting from their malfunction.


If you or someone you know has been injured in a motor vehicle accident, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation regarding your legal rights.

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