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What Happens When a Self-Driving Car Causes an Accident?

Self-driving cars have been in the news a lot lately. While some of the news has been positive – a self-driving vehicle making a first-of-its-kind cross-country journey in the spring of 2015, for instance – there have also been many reported setbacks.

In June 2016, The New York Times reported that federal safety investigators were looking into the nation’s first deadly self-driving car accident. The accident involved a Tesla and happened in Williston, Florida.

A few months later, in September, a Lexus outfitted with Google’s latest autonomous vehicle technology was also involved in a serious crash, according to This crash occurred in Mountain View, California.

These incidents have raised serious questions about the safety of self-driving vehicles. Further, these self-driving car accidents are creating some new and highly complex legal issues.

Drivers and Manufacturers Can Both Be Held Liable

In Wisconsin, liability for a car accident is based on negligence, or the failure to take proper care while performing an action. The party deemed at-fault for a car accident can be held responsible for the damages sustained in the crash.

Drivers and manufacturers might potentially bear liability for a crash. This is because the vehicle manufacturer and the driver have a duty to look out for the safety of others on the road.


Traditionally, drivers have been far more likely to cause wrecks than have manufacturers. In fact, an analysis by the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society found that human error was a causal factor in as many as 93 percent of all car accidents.

The self-driving car era promises to bring dramatic changes. As autonomous vehicles take on an increasing share of the operational responsibility, manufacturers are also likely to bear a greater share of the accident liability.

Understanding Liability in a Self-Driving Car Accidents

When it comes to apportioning accident liability between a driver and a manufacturer, autonomous driving accidents create complicated legal situations. This is particularly true in our current technological environment.

Right now, drivers and manufacturers share the task of operating the vehicle. The tragic Tesla accident that occurred in Florida earlier this year provides a very instructive example for how liability may be divided in these cases.

That accident involved a vehicle equipped with Tesla’s proprietary “autopilot mode.” The most important thing to know about autopilot is that it is a semi-autonomous self driving feature. In other words, a human pilot is still necessary.

When working properly, the autopilot mode is supposed to control the speed and direction of a vehicle. It can also assess the vehicle’s surroundings. It is supposed to slow it down if another car is present. This actually allows a driver to take his or her hands off of the wheel.

However, in the Florida accident case, the car’s software malfunctioned. It was unable to identify a nearby tractor-trailer. So, the car did not reduce its speed. The car slammed into the side of the truck, killing the driver.

At the moment of the accident, the driver’s hands were off the wheel. Some witnesses said that the drive actually may have been watching a video on his phone.

Self-Driving Accident Causation: Is the Driver or Manufacturer Responsible?

gruber-self-driving-02In the Florida Tesla accident case, it appears that both the driver and the manufacturer may have done something wrong.

Since the Tesla was only equipped with a semi-autonomous autopilot feature, the driver should not have removed his hands from the wheel. However, the vehicle’s software also malfunctioned.

Further, there is reason to believe that Tesla created an unsafe impression in the mind of the driver. Through the marketing of the product, Tesla may have induced the driver to “over-rely” on the car’s self-driving ability.

While Tesla has denied any liability for this accident, some observers disagree. In fact, following the accident, Consumer Reports issued an official statement calling for Tesla’s autopilot mode to be temporarily disabled on all vehicles.

Ultimately, causation is extremely important in motor vehicle accident cases. If you were injured in a car accident, your attorney will need to comprehensively investigate your case to determine the precise cause.

The increasing use of self-driving cars adds another level of complexity to investigations. This makes it even more critical that you get your case into the hands of an experienced car accident attorney as soon as possible after a crash.

How Are Companies Reacting to the Rise Self-Driving Cars?

long-term-trendMany companies involved in the automotive and transportation industries have recognized the massive disruption that self-driving cars will cause in the coming years.

Many tech companies see this as a major opportunity. Companies like Google and Uber are fighting hard to get into the self-driving car market. However, these companies must also stay focused on consumer safety. They are likely to bear a greater share of future auto accident liability than car manufacturers currently do.

For insurance companies, the rise of fully autonomous vehicles also promises to cause considerable disruption. As reported earlier this year in The Los Angeles Times, insurance industry experts recognize that the long-term trend is shifting car accident liability from drivers to manufacturers.

In the meantime, there will be a lengthy period in which both drivers and manufacturers will split liability for accidents. However, as self-driving technology improves, there is a recognition that the role of the driver in operating the vehicle will continue to shrink. Someday, it may disappear altogether.

Do You Need Legal Advice?

David GruberIf you or a loved one have been injured in an accident involving a self-driving car, call us today for a free consultation. The attorneys at Gruber Law Offices, LLC all have experience with handling various types of car accident cases, and our team is ready to help.
Our firm serves victims in Racine County, Waukesha County, Kenosha County, and throughout the Milwaukee region. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you.

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Gruber Law Offices is Wisconsin’s premier personal injury law firm. Our team consists of over 130 attorneys and professional staff who are passionate about helping those who have been injured.