•;Level 3 (Limited Self-Driving Auto-
mation). The driver foregoes all key
driving functions under specific traffic
or other circumstances, but is able to
resume control once those conditions
no longer exist; and
• Level 4 (Full Self-Driving Automa-
tion). The vehicle is designed to per-
form all primary driving functions and
monitor roadway conditions for the
entire length of travel.
Self-driving vehicles at Levels 3 and 4
are still in the testing phase. At present,
California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada,
North Dakota, and the District of Columbia have enacted statutes authorizing the testing of autonomous vehicles;
Tennessee has a law in place forbidding
its municipalities from prohibiting automated vehicles that otherwise comply
with all local safety regulations; Virginia’s governor has entered a partnership
allowing testing of self-driving cars to
take place in the “Virginia Automated
Corridors”; and Arizona’s governor recently signed an executive order directing state agencies to support testing of
automated vehicles on its roadways and
establishing an oversight committee.
Many other state legislatures are also
considering regulations on how to incorporate testing of autonomous vehicle
within their borders.
What’s under the hood of a
Automakers such as Audi, BMW, Ford,
Honda, Mercedes, Nissan, Tesla, Toyota
and Volvo are currently testing some
form of self-driving cars. While each
manufacturer will certainly include features unique to their brands, all autonomous vehicles will likely contain several
shared components that allow them to
operate properly, such as cameras, sensors, GPS-tracking, radars, lasers, cyber
security software, and “
vehicle-to-vehicle” (V2V) communication technology.
In a February 2013 press release, the
NHTSA suggested that V2V technology
“would improve safety by allowing vehicles to ‘talk’ to each other and ultimately
avoid many crashes altogether by exchanging basic safety data, such as speed
and position, ten times per second.”
Computers and cars both crash
(into each other)
In its February 2015 Critical Reasons for
Crashes Investigated in the National Motor
Vehicle Crash Causation Survey, the NHTSA estimated that 94 percent of motor vehicle accidents were attributable to human
behavior (i.e., drunk driving, speeding
and driver inattentiveness), as opposed to
2 percent for vehicle conditions, 2 percent
for environmental conditions, and 2 percent for unknown reasons. The primary
purpose of autonomous vehicles is to reduce the number of accidents, in part, by
attempting to limit human error entirely.
However, the risk of automotive accidents
will always exist due to human behavior,
emergencies, unpredictable events and
automated system failures.
While autonomous technology will
come, there is a segment of the driving
public that will prefer to remain low-tech
(and retain full control of their vehicles).
Thus, self-driving cars of the future will
need to co-exist with the human drivers
of the past, which introduces an innumerable combination of collision scenarios. For instance, presently, most accidents
involve only human driver vs. human
driver situations. In the coming years,
however, there will be accidents involving
human driver vs. semi-automated driver,
human driver vs. fully-automated driver,
semi-automated driver vs. semi-automated driver, semi-automated driver vs.
fully-automated driver, and driver fully-automated vs. fully-automated driver, as
well as other combinations (i.e., single vehicle collisions and multi-vehicle chain-reaction collisions).
Determining the causes of self-driving
vehicle collisions will also be more complicated and present some unique challenges. Was the accident due to human
error operating a vehicle with no or limited automation? Did the collision occur
due to an inappropriate or unsuccessful
driver override? Did the vehicle’s software malfunction, contain a computer
virus, was it breached by hackers or cyber
terrorists, or simply outdated (due to not
receiving regular system upgrades)?
Assessing liability in
autonomous vehicle accidents
As technology’s role in the driving experience increases and the element of human
control decreases, the types of claims most
likely arising from self-driving vehicle collisions will be based upon product liability
theories. Generally, claimants in product
liability claims can sue anyone involved in
the manufacture or sale of the product, inclusive of retailers, distributors, importers
and original manufacturers.
In the autonomous vehicle context,
product liability claims have the potential
for involving automakers, manufacturers of the cars’ critical technology and
components, and car dealerships. Ad-
Visual representation of V2V Communications, image courtesy of NHTSA’s August 2014
Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communications: Readiness of V2V Technology for Application.