Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Who’s liable?

Fully autonomous vehicles are not yet available to the public, but they are being tested on public roads.  But consumers will eventually be able to buy them and they can purchase semi-autonomous vehicles right now.  As a consequence, responsibility for accidents will expand beyond the driver to include companies that design, manufacture and maintain self-driving vehicles and the technology they operate on.

Two fatal accidents involving semi-autonomous vehicles occurred this March, increasing the number of reported deaths associated with self-driving cars to at least four and intensifying the focus of autonomous vehicle industry participants on the legal claims they may face in the future. 

It may be decades before the goal of autonomous vehicle technology — creating accident-free roadways — is achieved.  Until then, industry participants will face liability for accidents and will seek insurance protection against those liabilities.

Given the nature of self-driving technology, accidents involving these vehicles will increasingly require product liability coverage in addition to personal or commercial automobile liability coverage. Such coverage will address the exposures of the manufacturers, distributors and retailers of autonomous vehicles and their many parts and systems, whose malfunction might contribute to an accident cause. Of course, until a transition to fully autonomous vehicles occurs, automobile coverage for driver error will remain important.

An article in Automotive News proposed an example of such mixed liability:  Suppose a rental car company rents SUVs with autonomous features.  When in autonomous mode, the SUVs can drive themselves.  The manufacturer markets these autonomous features to consumers.  The rental company also installs an aftermarket entertainment system, which allows the driver to stream video while in autonomous mode.

The SUVs also have advanced safety features, including an emergency braking system that automatically applies the brakes when an object is detected.  But this feature is disabled when the SUVs are in autonomous mode; instead, the vehicles send a visual cue to the driver to take control.

An individual rents one of these SUVs and puts it in autonomous mode.  The vehicle approaches a crosswalk at 35 mph while a pedestrian is crossing.  The vehicle’s detection systems identify the pedestrian and send a visual cue to the driver to apply the brakes.  But the driver is watching a movie and does not respond.  The SUV strikes and kills the pedestrian.

Who might face the resulting liability claims, meritorious or not?

With overall responsibility for the design and production of the vehicle, the manufacturer could face claims. In this scenario, maybe the manufacturer is liable because it chose to disable the vehicle’s emergency braking feature and touted the vehicle’s autonomous capabilities despite the need for the driver to pay attention while driving in autonomous mode.

The companies that supplied the radar, lidar, camera array, navigation sensors and computing and data storage systems may be responsible if the system failed to identify the pedestrian and alert the driver that a collision was imminent.

Those suppliers might blame the rental company as the installer of the entertainment system.  A plaintiff may claim that the company outfitted the vehicle with a system that caused the driver to miss a crucial visual cue.

Notwithstanding the autonomous features of the vehicle, the accident was caused, in part, by human error.  That aspect will also implicate the driver’s auto insurance.

Until we have error-free fully autonomous vehicles, increasingly complex questions about the potential liability of semi-autonomous vehicle drivers and manufacturers will emerge.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at