Self-Driving Cars and the Law: What You Need to Know

Self-driving cars are all over the news these days, and they are even beginning to hit the streets. In fact, Olivier Garret, CEO of Maudlin Economics, predicts that by 2030, one in four cars on the road will be autonomous. (Though he admits that may be a conservative estimate.)

Whenever there is a major change in the way humans have done something for generations, it’s met with a combination of excitement, anticipation, trepidation, and always speculation. Extensive research (and yes, some speculation) exists about the effect of self-driving cars on the future of transportation. We’re here to provide answers to some commonly asked questions:

What Does a “Self-Driving Vehicle” Mean?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has established these levels of automation in self-driving vehicles:

  • Level 0: No automation; the driver is in full control
  • Level 1: Certain features (such as brake assist and stability control) exist to ease the severity of a crash
  • Level 2: Some automated systems (such as lane-centering and adaptive cruise control) can work together, but the driver still needs to pay attention to what is happening on the road
  • Level 3: The vehicle can function autonomously, but the driver must be ready to take control if instructed to do so by the vehicle
  • Level 4: The vehicle can function autonomously and monitor the driving environment in certain situations, but the driver still must be ready to take control if needed
  • Level 5: Full self-driving automation; drivers become passengers because the vehicle has taken over driving entirely.

Who Is At Fault in a Self-Driving Car Accident?

Establishing liability between a human driver and a machine in accidents involving autonomous vehicles can be challenging for a few reasons. For example, different cars will have different levels of autonomy for many years to come. Another factor is who was in control at the time of the accident - the driver or the vehicle? If the vehicle was in control, did the driver have the opportunity and ability to take back control? Consider a highly publicized 2016 fatal accident involving a self-driving Tesla vehicle and a truck. At the time of the crash, the car was in full autopilot mode. An investigation revealed no defects in the vehicle’s design or performance. It was determined that even in autopilot mode, the driver still needed to be paying full attention to the surroundings to avoid an accident. Tesla was not found liable in the accident.

How Will Self-Driving Cars Affect Auto Insurance?

It is expected that self-driving cars will disrupt the auto insurance industry, but to what extent remains to be seen. Some predictions state the car insurance sector could shrink by 60% by 2040. Some automakers are already establishing industry standards that could affect the auto insurance sector. In 2015, Volvo pledged to assume full liability if one of their self-driving vehicles got into a crash. On the other hand, in its Asian market, Tesla has been bundling auto insurance and maintenance into the purchase price of their vehicles. As the 2016 Tesla case proved, it can be hard to pin fault entirely on a machine; many times, human error comes into play. In general, as long as there is a way for humans to regain control in a self-driving vehicle, there will still be a need for liability insurance.

Are Driverless Semi-Trucks Next?

Research conducted by Allied Business Intelligence asserts that it is not likely that driverless trucks will take to the highways anytime soon, however, commercial vehicles and buses may be used in more confined, slow-moving spaces such as airport terminals and college campuses.


While it seems futuristic to be talking about driverless cars, some experts are saying that they will become the norm within 10 years. If you have any questions about liability in an accident involving a self-driving vehicle, contact Whiting Law and let us help you.

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