We’re in an age of driverless cars. What was once a subject confined to science fiction stories will soon be a reality on our roads: Cars that drive themselves.
Already, people are test-operating these vehicles. Manufacturers continue to tweak them to make their technical features more advanced and to meet high safety standards.
In fact, one of people’s chief concerns about these kinds of cars are their safety. Although their use may ultimately lead to fewer accidents on the road, as they reduce the rate of human error behind the wheel, many people are uncomfortable at the thought of giving up control to an autonomous machine that could still make mistakes.
In 2013, DC enacted a bill on automated driving; among the requirements it makes is the presence of a human driver who can immediately take control of the vehicle. California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada have also enacted bills concerning automated driving, while a number of other states are currently debating legislation as well.
Along with concerns over the safe use of these vehicles comes questions about liability. What happens if there is an accident? Who is responsible?
A recent blog post from the Washington Post poses these questions and lays out some of the complex issues. For instance, we might decide in a given situation that the manufacturer of an automated vehicle is responsible. In some cases, this might definitely be true. If there was a preventable problem with the software or wiring in the vehicle that led to a crash, the manufacturer will likely be held responsible.
But that doesn’t address a number of other situations. Given that the law would require drivers to be able to take control of the vehicle at a moment’s notice, what happens if drivers fail to do this? Would they also be responsible, even if there’s an error with the vehicle itself? When drivers get behind the wheel, they assume responsibility for its operation. The mere delegation of that responsibility to an automated system doesn’t necessarily obviate the duty that a driver still owes to other people on the road. Even when drivers allow an automated system to control a vehicle, they may still be held responsible both for their own actions and the actions of the automated system.
Furthermore, vehicles can differ in the degree to which they’re automated. Some would also be converted into autonomous vehicles, in which case it would be more difficult to assign liability to one manufacturing company (a given company may even be exempt in such cases). Drivers themselves may tinker with the vehicles or fail to maintain them, in which case they also could be assigned liability.
Self-driving vehicles aren’t yet a regular feature on the roads, but they likely will be in a short while. As in the case of accidents involving other types of vehicles, it would be necessary to contact an experienced DC accident lawyer who grasps the complexity of the law and of the circumstances surrounding any mishap on the road.
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