Liability for Self-Driving Cars

By: Gokce Yurekli

In May 2016, a Tesla Model S operating on autopilot crashed into a tractor-trailer.[1] The car’s camera did not recognize the truck against the bright sky.[2] The driver was not paying attention and failed to override the autopilot system.[3] He died in the crash.[4] The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency in charge of investigating the crash, “did not identify any defects in the design or performance of Autopilot, or any incidents in which the systems did not perform as designed,” thereby relieving Tesla of liability.[5]

This case raises an important question that lawyers and policymakers need to address in the coming years, as more autonomous cars are slated to enter the marketplace: who is liable when a self-driving car crashes? The debate is whether the current laws are adequate to answer this question and if not, how do they need to be changed to provide an adequate solution.

For instance, a strict liability standard could apply to the owner.[6] But imposing such standard might make owners reluctant to buy autonomous cars.[7] “If owners will be expected to take over manual control of [a car] in the event of an emergency, then they will need to remain just as vigilant as the driver of a regular [car].”[8] This inevitably defeats the purpose of buying an autonomous car.[9]

If liability shifts to the manufacturer, car makers might lose their incentive to develop autonomous cars.[10] This shift will also require lawmakers to determine what type of insurance will be required for owners and manufacturers.[11] Currently, the insurance market expects a “decline in [car] insurance premiums and an increase in products liability insurance premiums.”[12] Volvo, for example, has said that the company will “accept full liability whenever one if its cars is in autonomous mode.”[13] Tesla, on the other hand, said it will not “consider itself legally liable if its driverless cars get in a crash.”[14]

It is likely that autonomous cars will enter broader commercial use in the upcoming decades. But the task of assigning liability for accidents is tricky. One thing is for certain: lawyers and lawmakers have their work cut out for them.


[1] Neal E. Boudette, Tesla’s Self-Driving System Cleared in Deadly Crash, N.Y. TIMES (Jan. 19, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/19/business/tesla-model-s-autopilot-fatal-crash.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Id. 

[4] Id.

[5] Id. (internal quotations omitted).

[6] John O'Rourke and Patrick Soon, Driverless Technology and the Issue of Liability: Who's Responsible?, Inside Counsel (Mar. 14, 2014), http://www.insidecounsel.com/2014/03/14/driverless-technology-and-the-issue-of-liability-w.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Robert Hermes, U.S. Insurance Market Braces for a Seismic Shift Due to Driverless Cars, Inside Counsel (Jan. 23, 2017), http://www.insidecounsel.com/2017/01/23/us-insurance-market-braces-for-a-seismic-shift-due.

[12] Id.

[13] Jim Gorzelany, Volvo Will Accept Liability For Its Self-Driving Cars, Forbes (Oct. 9, 2015, 11:48 AM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimgorzelany/2015/10/09/volvo-will-accept-liability-for-its-self-driving-cars/#4966028372c5. (internal quotations omitted).

[14] Danielle Muoio, Elon Musk: Tesla Not Liable for Driverless Car Crashes Unless It's Design Related, Business Insider (Oct. 19, 2016, 10:38 PM), http://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-tesla-liable-driverless-car-crashes-2016-10.

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