Cars that are not operated by human beings, but rather by computers, are currently being developed by the world’s leading technological industries. Some say these cars will eventually replace all vehicles driven by humans. Self-driving cars do not have the same controls in the car that automobiles have today, because they are operated solely by remote computers.

If a person is injured because of a fault in the operation of a self-driving car, complicated questions of liability arise. The law in this area is very new, so there are a number of different criteria for liability depending on the state in which the car is driven when an accident occurs.

Today, there still are not any fully self-driving cars on the road in use by the average, ordinary driver. Rather there are cars with an auto-pilot feature that allows the car to operate by itself. But a driver must still remain in control, although apparently some drivers fail to understand this. An accident in Texas resulted in the death of two men in a self-driving car in which neither had remained behind the steering wheel while the car was in motion on the road. Most of the accidents involving self-driving cars have been caused by distracted driving.

Are Self-Driving Cars Legal?

Cars such as Tesla’s Auto Pilot and Cadillac’s Super Cruise are becoming increasingly legal to use in different states. These vehicle’s systems are not considered self-driving, because the driver needs to pay attention while the car is in motion even in self-driving mode. So, the driver, and not the automaker, would be responsible in the case of an accident; unless, of course, an injured party could prove that the car had a design or manufacturing defect that caused the accident. In this case, the manufacturer would be liable.

At the present time, fully self-driving cars are not available to the average consumer. Once these cars do enter the marketplace, it is not at all clear what will happen in terms of liability in the event of accidents. Volvo has stated that it will assume liability when an accident is caused by a Volvo vehicle operating in fully autonomous mode, as long as the self-driving system has not been abused. To make matters even more complicated, self-driving cars will have a manual mode, which gives control over the vehicle to the human operator in the driving seat.

Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C. have passed legislation on the subject of autonomous vehicles. Ten states have executive orders issued by their governors. Nine states have laws that are pending or have failed to be passed by their legislatures, but may be reconsidered. The remaining states have not yet taken any action. The problem is that there is no uniformity to the laws that have been passed, except for the fact that all states require that a licensed driver be in the car when it is in operation.

California has been especially active in this area. A decade ago, it directed its Department of Highway Patrol to set safety standards and performance requirements to ensure the safe operation and testing of autonomous vehicles on its public roadways. The state also allows autonomous vehicles to be tested and operated on public roads as long as they meet the standards and requirements in state law.

It allowed a county transportation authority to to test fully autonomous vehicles that do not have steering wheels, brake pedals, gas pedals, or an operator inside the vehicle. The testing was allowed only at specific locations and under certain speeds. It asked its Department of Transportation to work to provide the infrastructure-to-vehicle communications for autonomous vehicle systems.

Then it extended the life of a law that allows autonomous test vehicles to travel with less than 100 feet between each vehicle, but only with licensed drivers in the cars. It does not require the Department of Motor Vehicles to notify the state legislature if it receives an application for approval to operate an autonomous vehicle without a driver.

In contrast, Illinois has only prohibited local authorities from banning autonomous vehicles. Illinois law does not currently address any other issues associated with autonomous vehicles.

Some states have only addressed autonomous commercial vehicles, such as tractor-trailers for moving goods. Kentucky is an example. Kentucky allows commercial vehicles to operate in a platoon, i.e. a train-like line, if the carrier notifies the Department of Vehicle Regulation (KY DVR) and the Kentucky State Police. The KY DVR has 30 days to review the notification and either approve or reject it. Additionally, a driver with a commercial driver’s license must be at the steering wheel in the driver’s seat and each vehicle must display some kind of mark stating that it is part of a platoon.

Reportedly only California, Florida, Washington D.C., and Nevada have made laws regarding who is liable in accidents involving self-driving cars. Recently, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that it would recognize self-driving cars as safe enough for use on U.S. roadways. The goal is to facilitate testing and increased development of self-driving cars.

Legislation and proposed legislation around self-driving cars assume that a human being will be operating the computer that directs the car. The car might not have a driver, but a person is sending the signals to the car that control its movements.

Because of this, manufacturers may have limited liability in some states. Florida and Washington D.C. shift the liability from the auto manufacturer to the tech company that creates and installs the computer that operates the car. Florida, Washington D.C. and Nevada anticipate cars without drivers eventually becoming more commonplace. They have passed laws that designate the operator of the car to be the person remotely controlling the computer device and not the driver behind the steering wheel.

Still, in the event of an accident, in some states, a person who is injured may have to rely on standard common law negligence claims and product liability law. If a car is not fully autonomous and its operation still depends on a driver, then if the negligence of the driver caused the accident, the driver may be liable. If the car has a design or manufacturing defect, then the manufacturer could still be liable on a theory of product liability.

Much will depend on the law in the state where the accident takes place. An injured party should consult an experienced personal injury lawyer who can sort out the possibilities. Expert testimony might be the key to success.

Other legal issues around self-driving cars include questions of privacy and licensure. Nevada has created a special license that a person must have in order to operate a self-driving car legally. Additionally, self-driving cars record GPS coordinates that the car uses to make its way from point A to point B. California state law makes this information available for disclosure and not private to the driver or privileged.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

The legality of self-driving cars and the issue of liability for an accident are unsettled areas of the law. The self-driving cars on the road today are not fully autonomous, and it is not at all clear what will happen when fully autonomous cars hit the market.

If you have been injured in or by a self-driving car, or think you are at danger of being injured by a self-driving car, consulting an experienced car accident lawyer can help inform you of your options for restitution and remedy. The law in this area is changing and an experienced personal injury attorney is best positioned to handle a claim for injuries caused by an autonomous car.