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Who’s To Blame When A Driverless Car Has An Accident?

The news that an Uber self-driving vehicle has killed a pedestrian in the US can make headlines around the world. In 2016, a driver of a self-driving car was killed in a collision.

It’s a reminder that the era of self-driving cars is fast approaching. Decades of research into advanced sensors, mapping, navigation, and control methods have now come to fruition and autonomous cars are starting to hit the roads in pilot trials.

When it comes to autonomous vehicles, who is to blame in the case of an accident?

But partial or full autonomy raises the question of who is to blame in the case of an accident involving a self-driving car? In conventional (human-driven) cars, the answer is simple: the driver is responsible because they are in control. When it comes to autonomous vehicles, it isn’t so clear-cut.

The only real solution may be to review your car’s blackbox. Much like an airline, almost all new vehicle’s use sensor data to ascertain liability in accidents involving self-driving cars.

The Parties to an Accident

Uber has suspended self-driving car tests as US authorities gather data about the circumstances surrounding the accident, which involved a car moving in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel.

For partially autonomous vehicles, which still involve human control, assigning liability depends on what action led to the collision and whether it was based on decisions by the driver or the vehicle. For fully autonomous vehicles, the blame can be assigned to, or shared by, one of many parties—including the manufacturer, the service center, and the vehicle owner.

Manufacturers could be liable in the case of a design fault, the software provider for buggy system software, or the service center for inadequate service to the vehicle. On the other hand, negligence liability might fall to the owner for failing to implement a software update from the manufacturer, or with the manufacturer if the accident could have been prevented by a human driver.

In this complex web of potentially responsible parties, how can the circumstances surrounding an accident be determined?

Sensor Data Can Inform Liability Decisions

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are information-rich platforms thanks to the range of sensors on board that track, monitor and measure everything. Navigation sensors determine routes. Situational awareness sensors detect obstacles, follow lane marks and read traffic signs. And performance measurement monitors track critical functions like tire pressure and oil levels.

It seems an obvious solution to consider data from the vehicle sensors for liability decisions. In the event of an accident, we can readily retrieve all the sensor data to reconstruct the scene.

However, the reality is more complicated. The challenge in this new ecosystem is that some of the potentially liable parties may also have disproportionate control over the sensor data. There is a risk that one of these parties may alter the data to steer the liability decision in its favor, using the wireless and USB interfaces that current vehicles already support.

That means we must not only record tamper-free sensor data, but also any interactions with the vehicle.

This is not just about your Car

Sensor data goes beyond driverless cars, extending to smart homes, supply chains, and smart grids. In smart homes, sensor data can be stored in a secure blockchain to be used for evidence in insurance liability claims such as break-ins or fires.

Blockchain can also be used for storing auditable sensor data in supply chains so that consumers can trace the origin and condition of their products reliably. Finally, smart grids can benefit from peer-to-peer transactions in blockchain involving their smart meters for trusted and distributed energy trading.

This technology is still under development, but with lives at stake when autonomous vehicles hit the road in increasing numbers, we must ensure that the liable party is held to account when things go wrong. In 2016, 37,000 people where killed in Motor Vehicle Accidents (MVA’s). Could those deaths have been prevented, has it negligence, product liability, or no one’s fault?

Many attorneys cherry pick MVA’s and mooch off the low hanging fruit. Don’t get me wrong we at Goldfinch Winslow will handle your car accident, but those accidents are about to get tougher. What is your attorney going to do when there is no driver in the other car? Right now companies are testing driverless delivery, soon people will be napping while they are transported. The next generation of driverless transportation is coming – make sure your attorney is keeping up with it.

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