Self-Driving Cars and The Impact on Personal Injury Law

The future is now, at least with regards to our roadways. Self-driving cars are already legal in some states and some serious issues have already come to light. A concept that we once thought of as something out of a sci-fi movie is already a reality in a few areas of DFW, including Frisco in a closed business park and on public streets in Arlington starting next month.

Although it’s difficult to say when autonomous cars will become the standard, there’s already been an impact on personal injury law. Even if it is gradually implemented into our roadways over time, now is the time to determine some important issues about liability.

Changes in Legislation

Proving fault has always been the primary task of any personal injury attorney. Without it, there is no way to make the liable party pay for the damages he or she has caused. But who is liable when there is NO driver behind the wheel? Some legislation is already law and more is in the works. But some of the new laws are leaving drivers unhappy with the potential effect it could have.

At the beginning of September 2017, Congress approved legislation that would increase the speed at which states put driverless cars onto the roads. Congress developed The Self Drive Act to prevent states from slowing down progress. At about that same time, a new state law went into effect in Texas which allows automakers and others to test self-driving vehicles on state highways and roads.

Critics of these and other acts of legislation meant to speed up the availability of self-driving cars worry about their safety. It isn’t just about other drivers on the roads. There are already far too many pedestrian deaths. When a self-driven vehicle strikes a pedestrian in the crosswalk, is it the fault of the manufacturer, the computer programmer, or someone else?

Uber has been testing driverless cars for a few years. Recently, one of the company’s cars with an emergency backup driver still struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. This was thought to be the first pedestrian fatality from a self-driving car to date. While it is the first accident of its kind, it leaves experts wondering what will happen when there are more cars facing unpredictable situations. For example, when a self-driving Volvo Uber struck and killed a woman bicyclist in Florida, she wasn’t using the crosswalk to cross the street. Experts believe the car became ‘confused’ and failed to break.

Google accepted partial liability for a crash that killed their driver while testing a Tesla. Once an accident happens, it’s too late to worry about what caused the accident. Instead, these vehicles need to be made safer before they enter into the mainstream. Right now, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that you won’t be held liable even if you weren’t driving at the time of the accident. Once the technology is fully implemented, there may be certain situations where drivers need to actively take the wheel. If there’s no obvious problem with the cars operating system, then the fault of a collision could potentially still be on you.

The Human (Error) Factor

Experts predict that self-driving cars will help prevent accidents. In fact, Tesla is fast to point out the low percentage of accidents and fatalities of their vehicles in comparison to the same statistics in cars driven by humans. There’s certainly no arguing that the number of fatal car accidents in Texas is high. Last year, the number of people killed on Texas roadways increased by 10 percent to 3,700. In any vehicle accident involving two or more vehicles or pedestrians, someone is at fault. In most cases, it is human error that causes the crash. When the victim of the accident incurs a lot of damages, it is the at-fault driver’s responsibility to pay.

Someone has to be at-fault when an accident involves a self-driving vehicle, too. That blame isn’t always going to go to the unmanned car. In a number of the accidents involving self-driving cars, human error has been a factor. In others, the accident occurred due to a flaw in the system or due to vehicle malfunction.

In some of the cars on roads today, the Auto Pilot mode allows drivers to turn over the wheel to the car when appropriate. When they approach a situation that calls for the human driver to take over, the car alerts them to the situation. This was what happened in 2016 in Florida when a driver failed to heed several warnings from his car. The car crashed, killing the driver. In this case, the car operated as expected and the driver’s inaction led to the accident.

All automated vehicles are not the same. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has developed a six-level scale as follows:

  1. No Automation – A vehicle that relies on a human driver at all times
  2. Driver Assistance – The vehicle either aids in steering or acceleration/deceleration based on the information provided by the driving environment. All other aspects of driving are left to the human driver.
  3. Partial Automation – Uses a driving mode-specific execution of steering and acceleration/deceleration with the human driving performing the remaining aspects.
  4. Conditional Automation – The car uses driving mode-specific performance including all aspects of driving unless the human is signaled to intervene.
  5. High Automation – The car uses driving mode-specific performance to automatically drive during all aspects even if the human fails to respond to a request to intervene.
  6. Full Automation – The car offers full-time performance under all roadway and environmental conditions, including those that can be managed by a human driver.

When people drive distracted, don’t obey driving laws, or are under the influence of alcohol, they will still be at fault in many cases. Most personal injury attorneys have an in-depth understanding of the law related to car accident claims. It’s the increasing number of autonomous cars that are to blame that will make it challenging in the future.

The Impact on Car Insurance

Car insurance companies have a lot to do with the way personal injury cases get settled today. The insurance company is the one who is left to pay the damages when their client is the at-fault driver in a car crash. It’s also the car insurance company that doesn’t want you to prove that their client is at fault. The better they are at disproving your claim, the less they have to pay.

Now that self-driving cars are becoming a reality, it’s going to affect the insurance industry, too. Some experts believe that once the vehicles are en-mass on the roads, they won’t be owned by individuals. Instead, technology giants like Apple and Google, or ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, will own them. Auto manufacturers like General Motors will also have a hand in the industry. In other words, these company will operate fleets of vehicles that provide a service around the clock. This belief is based in part on the partnership between GM and Lyft, along with that of Uber and Volvo. A number of others are already discussing similar partnerships.

Now, insurance companies will have to shift their services from private vehicle owners to self-driving cars use commercially. The potential for accidents will be greatly reduced, leading to lower overall premiums due to a lower risk of accidents.

In addition to private vehicles, there’s also likely to be a change to autonomous vehicles for existing commercial fleets. Companies like FedEx, UPS, and others stand to gain a lot from making the switch to autonomous trucks. One factor in the insurance company’s favor is that the transition is likely to be slow.

Although there is a lot to lose for the insurance companies, there are some new areas to pursue. If they make the transition, some areas of pursuit could include:

  • Cyber Security – As automation features grow-in volume and sophistication, there’s going to be more concerns about hacking, cyber theft, ransomware, and other software and hardware programs. Failing to have insurance against hacking, for instance, could lead a driver to be held liable for an accident that resulted.
  • Safeguard Coverage– This includes systems that will be used to secure the infrastructure.
  • Product Liability – This type of insurance coverage goes back to the issue of the manufacturer’s liability. If an accident occurs due to the functioning parts of the car, this insurance would specifically cover it.

Texas Liability Laws for Self-Driving Cars

During mid-2017, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill that allows Google, Uber, and carmakers to test-drive driverless cars on their roads and highways without a driver inside. The law was introduced in spite of their being no previous legislation to prevent them from being tested on state highways and roads. What the bill did was to address the emerging technology specifically. Bill 2205 specifies that all driverless vehicles have the capability to comply with traffic laws. They are also required to carry insurance and have video recording devices. Also important is that the legislation specifies that manufacturers are responsible when traffic laws are broken and/or there are any car wrecks.

What to Do After An Accident with a Self-Driving Car

Laws and liability are changing, along with the gradual change to new self-driving technology. There are going to be some blurred lines and some confusion until it becomes more common. A lot of issues will have to be settled along the way. This is as true about personal injury law as it is for anything else.

Meanwhile, if you have an accident with a self-driving car, you need to know what to do to protect yourself. Whether you are the driver of a second vehicle or a passenger in the self-driving car, make sure you take the following steps:

  • Call law enforcement and make sure they file an accident report. Even if it seems 100% apparent which party is at fault, you never know what the other parties will say later on.
  • Get medical treatment. Even if your injuries seem minor, they could be more serious than you think. If you decide to file a personal injury claim later, you will need your medical records to prove your injuries.
  • Exchange insurance and contact information with other drivers and passengers in the other car.
  • Put your smartphone to good use. Take photos of the vehicles and the accident scene. Get photos of traffic lights or signs that might have played a role in the accident. Get photos of the other vehicle including the make, model, and the license number.
  • Gather contact information from anyone who saw the accident.
  • Request on-board computer data from the self-driving car.
  • Contact your insurance company about the accident.
  • Contact a Fort Worth personal injury attorney for a case evaluation.

Personal injury law is already changing in response to the introduction of self-driving cars on our roads and highways. Personal injury law has always been complex — and now, it will be even more complicated. Depending on the circumstances of the accident, finding the at-fault party may be very difficult. In many cases, there may be multiple parties to blame. Without an experienced attorney who understands the newest legislation, you could end up getting an unfair resolution to your case.

The idea of turning over our driving to robots is both exciting and scary. I have blogged about this seemingly crazy idea before and will continue to monitor it carefully.

Lawmakers are in a bit of a rush to make self-driving cars a reality. Too many times, they’ve reduced regulations to make it more convenient to test vehicles without making safety a priority. Every reduction in regulations makes it a little more dangerous for these cars to be on the road.

The small number of self-driving cars on the roads now make it much less likely that you will have an accident with one. As that number grows, so does the risk. When it happens to you, make sure you follow the tips listed above for what to do after an accident. Make sure you contact Bill Berenson for a free consultation. We’re here to get you the compensation you deserve for your injuries after any type of accident.

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