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What Happens When a Robot is in an Accident?

US DOT and Michael Ehline - Los Angeles car accident lawyer.
Ehline attends the US traffic safety hearings. Making traffic and surface streets safer for commuters and pedestrians.

In a few decades, consumer motor vehicle operations will be a thing of the past. Planes will be self-directed, trains will be automated, and we’ll all enjoy the peace of a self-driving car. It’s a pretty appealing concept. Long road trip on the horizon? Just jump in the back seat and let your Tesla’s A.I. take the wheel.

Nissan’s CEO recently stated that he expects the first self-driving vehicles to be on traditional roads by 2020, but you can already enjoy the convenience if you work at Google – which loads a ton of automated cars on their campus.

The goal is to create a safer, saner experience on America’s roadways. The human race is distracted and angry; it’s about time we pass over the reigns to a neutral, respectful autopilot program.

However, the rise of the self-driving car will open up a brand new controversy. Namely, what happens when a robot is involved in an accident? We’ve spent decades drawing up the specifics for personal injury law in vehicular collisions.

We’ve all danced with insurance companies sussing out fault, irresponsibility, and injury graveness. But how does that change when a computer is behind the wheel? It’s a complicated question, and at this point, it’s only a matter of time before we confront it head-on.

Who Is At Fault in an AI Crash?

The vast majority of accidents involving self-driving cars are not the fault of A.I. itself. The motorized, automated vehicle is following the rules of the road, and some fallible human idiot rear-ends them or merges into their lane. However, that’s not always the case. Last Valentine’s Day a Google self-driving car slammed into a bus after it tried to negotiate a right turn.

It wasn’t a glitch, the car’s software simply made an error in judgment that caused a collision – which is a tacit confirmation that the era of the self-driving car will not be an era utterly free of car accidents. Occasionally, there will be a need to get into the legal weeds.

There’s nothing fun about being in an accident, but there is evidence to say that being involved in a collision with a self-driving car might be more beneficial to the victim than a conventional personal injury case. Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, has taught a course on the burgeoning sector of automated vehicles, and told the Associated Press that “assuming you’re not dead, you’re in a much better position than if you’d been hit by an ordinary, human-driven vehicle.”

This is because self-driving cars will shift the legal nexus away from the traditional questions that surround piloted negligence. Now, these cases are directed toward product liability. “Whereas today’s crash liability regime is based largely on the liability of individual drivers under negligence, tomorrow’s may be premised on the liability of manufacturers. So this would be under product liability broadly,” he writes in a paper called Automated Driving and Product Liability. “This shift will also create new issues for the judges and juries evaluating the resulting crash claims—as well as for the lawyers negotiating to avoid such trials.”

The reason that’s advantageous for a legal client is that you’ll be dealing directly with a corporate entity. After all, it’s difficult to prove negligence in a personal injury case. A lot of the specifics are left up to unknowable conjecture. How can you prove that a driver took his eyes off the road in an inopportune moment? Do we know for sure he was looking at a cell phone?

However, this becomes a lot easier when you’re dealing with cold hard calculations of a self-driving vehicle. If the nuts and bolts show that a car on auto-pilot miscalculated an off-ramp merge, you quickly eliminate any guesswork. There’s also speculation that the manufacturers of self-driving vehicles will want to err on the side of caution. That way they can hand out generous settlements to keep the industry looking pristine.

Volvo, Google, and Mercedes-Benz have all already stated that they’ll take responsibility for any accidents involving their vehicles. Going to court over the specifics about a computer’s decision making doesn’t look good from the outside looking in.

That being said, there’s also a chance for the fault of a self-driving car accident to fall on the owner of the automated vehicle. Let’s say an accident happens because a self-driving car’s tire blows out and swerves into traffic, and after an investigation, it’s clear that the tire in question needed to be changed for a long time. In that case, the fault may fall to the pilot.

It’s a pretty easy defense to claim a driver wasn’t maintaining the proper conditions necessary to keep an automated vehicle safe. But again, that discretion will be left to a judge. Yet, this is all speculative. Despite all the money being poured into the self-driving industry, the legal jurisdiction is still lost in the Wild West.

In a few decades enough legislation and precedents will be passed to outline the specifics of the status quo, but until then your best bet is to get a good lawyer and hope for a big settlement.


Michael Ehline

Michael Ehline sufferred a horrific rollover accident when he was young. Dealing with his injury lawyers, and the medical industrial complex made Mike want to study law. So after his tour in the U.S. Marines, and running several small businesses, Ehline went for it. Check out some of his Los Angeles Car Accident Lawyer Verdicts and Settlements. Now Ehline is a highly successful, ambitious car crash lawyer. He operates ELFPI.com, which is an accident and injury law practice based in Los Angeles, CA.

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