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Self-Driving Cars Run Into Product Liability Issues

September 23, 2020 (4 min read)

There was once a time when the idea of a self-driving car seemed like something straight out of a movie. Even just five years ago, there were only five states where testing these vehicles was even allowed.

Now automated vehicles have become a far more common sight. And as self-driving cars become more and more visible, it may not be surprising that there is now a new legal concern for companies: motor vehicle product liability lawsuits.

This is something that auto manufacturers and sellers will need to be prepared to handle. In the past, when automotive litigation arose from a motor vehicle accident, it often involved the negligence of a driver. Yet with automation playing a larger role in the equation, the blame may shift to the vehicle itself. In fact, there have already been automobile lawsuits stemming from autonomous vehicle accidents, and the safety of these autonomous vehicles needs to be top of mind for manufacturers and sellers as cars become more and more automated.

Product Liability Concerns With Autonomous Vehicles

Cars have slowly become more and more autonomous over the past decades. There is a scale that indicates just how autonomous the car is. Level one—where just a single aspect is automated—has been around since the 1990s, where sensors and cameras help things such as staying in a lane. In level two, two or more elements are controlled by chips though a human still operates the vehicle, and in level three, a person needs to be on-hand to potentially intervene yet all aspects of driving can be done for them. The autonomous cars that are currently available for purchase are level two vehicles, though level three cars are expected to be on the market in two years.

The nature of the automated driving system is rather complex. The system uses radar, sensors, software, and on-board cameras, as well as light detection and ranging systems (LIDARS) that use infrared pulses. For auto manufacturers and sellers, these highly sophisticated systems bring the potential for product liability exposure. In the past, auto defects in parts like airbags or batteries were typical sources of product liability suits. Now there is a whole new level of concern.

In addition to tires and brakes and other traditional concerns, automakers must now ensure that there are no software or hardware issues within their automated driving systems. For instance, there could be a faulty sensor that leads to an accident. Or there may be a defect with a car’s LIDARS that hinders response time. Any potential issue with an automated driving system could potentially lead to a product liability claim or other liability risk.

The Litigation Landscape

Though far less common than accidents involving a manually operated vehicle, accidents involving autonomous cars are not unheard of. From 2014 through 2018, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles recorded 129 crash reports involving these types of vehicles. The state’s 2018 Report of Traffic Collision Involving an Autonomous Vehicle reported 31 accidents between September and December of 2018. Of these incidents, over half were with a vehicle that was in autonomous mode.

There have already been lawsuits arising from accidents involving autonomous vehicles. Last year in Florida, a 50-year-old man was driving a Tesla Model 3 with the Autopilot system active when his car struck a tractor-trailer. The man was killed and the National Transportation Safety Board said neither the driver nor Autopilot made maneuvers to evade the accident. His family sued Tesla for wrongful death, alleging that Autopilot was defective.

NTSB reports are likely evidence in any product liability action involving an autonomous vehicle, and the agency has previously urged Tesla to ensure that its Autopilot system monitors and alerts drivers who aren’t paying attention to the road. The agency did so after a fatal 2018 crash in which a Tesla Model X carrying an Apple engineer hit a concrete barrier. The driver was likely playing a video game on his smart phone at the time, according to the report.

There have now been multiple legal disputes involving pedestrian deaths and autonomous vehicles. The first involved an Uber self-driving test vehicle, which struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona in 2018. A quick settlement in that case kept the automobile liability issues from being aired in court.

A more recent cast could test them. In April, the family of a pedestrian killed by a Tesla that had Autopilot engaged filed a lawsuit in federal court in California. The plaintiffs are looking to hold Tesla liable for “defective design, failing to warn of the alleged defects of its Autopilot technology and driver assistance features, and negligence.” Emphasizing the fact that the case will break new ground, their complaint tells the court that: “not holding developers, like Tesla, who are at the helm of developing such cutting-edge technologies such as Tesla’s Autopilot system, it is inevitable that without action, the first Tesla Autopilot-related death involving a pedestrian certainly will not be the last.”

Though there have not been many fatal crashes involving autonomous vehicles—and a low number of accidents in general—these cases illuminate the potential legal risks manufacturers and sellers can face. Ultimately, as companies shift to developing level three autonomous vehicles, ensuring the safety of automated driving systems will be a paramount concern for the automotive industry.