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Who is Responsible for Self-Driving Car Accidents?

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In 2019, there were more than 31 million cars worldwide with at least some level of autonomous capabilities – a number that is forecasted to surpass 54 million in 2024. As the number of cars on the road with even partial automated functionality continues to grow, so too do the legal issues with autonomous vehicles, including the debate over who is responsible for self-driving car accidents in the United States.

Although there are far fewer cars on the road with some level of self-driving capability than those without, the self-driving car accident rate among those vehicles is more than double that of normal automobiles, at 9.1 car accidents per million miles driven (compared to 4.1 crashes). Despite this, little clearly defined legislation currently exists in relation to autonomous vehicle control.

Are fully autonomous cars legal?

Although there is no current Federal legislation explicitly defining the legality of self-driving cars, and no state has outright banned autonomous vehicles, there are only eleven states that have yet to pass any laws regarding self-driving cars. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there are six levels of autonomous vehicle control, ranging from no automation to full automation. At present, there is no vehicle for sale that the NHTSA considers fully automated.

As of mid-2021, laws regarding self-driving cars largely fall within different grey areas. Outside of S.1885 (a Senate bill introduced in 2017 meant to create a baseline for the usage of autonomous cars on public roads, which has yet to be voted upon), there has been little Federal legislation introduced (and none passed) in regard to the legal status of self-driving cars.

While Biden’s infrastructure plan proposal includes a $174 billion investment in electric vehicles (and could lead to a legislative focus on major E.V. manufacturers like Tesla whose cars include self-driving capabilities), related legal issues with autonomous vehicles are unlikely to be defined on a federal level in the immediate future.

For drivers who intend to operate a car with self-driving capabilities, it’s important to know what state-specific legislation might apply. For example, in the three states Avrek Law serves, legislation affecting self-driving cars includes:

  • California – SB 1298: Passed in 2012, California was the third state to allow the testing and operation of self-driving cars on public roads. The bill states that during testing an operator must be present, and that the operator must be properly licensed. Further stipulations in regard to the operation and testing of autonomous vehicles apply within the state.
  • Nevada – AB 511, AB 69, SB 140, and SB 313: As the first state to pass laws regarding self-driving cars in 2011, Nevada has continued to pass additional related legislation over the years. While the initial bill (AB 511) established the foundation of legality for self-driving cars on state highways, later bills added additional stipulations, with SB 140 permitting the usage of cellphones by operators of autonomous vehicles in the state.
  • Arizona – Executive Orders 2015-09 and 2018-04, and HB 2813: Like California and Nevada, Arizona was one of the earliest states to encourage the proliferation of self-driving cars. Instead of a bill, however, Governor Douglas Ducey signed an executive order in 2015 advancing Arizona’s ability to pursue the development of self-driving cars, and issued a new order in 2018 further clarifying rules around the development and operation of autonomous vehicles. In March 2021, HB 2813 was passed, establishing a basic safety framework for self-driving cars by adding initial regulation for autonomous vehicles to state driving law.
Driver watching her phone in autonomous car - who is responsible for self-driving car accidents?

How many deaths have been caused by self-driving cars?

Although current data on the total number of accidents involving self-driving cars is sparse, recent efforts have been made to provide more transparency on the issue. On June 29th, 2021, the NHTSA issued a Standing General Order requiring autonomous car developers and manufactures to report data regarding crashes within ten days of becoming aware of each incident. Initial reports from the NHTSA reveal investigations into approximately 30 instances of an autonomous Tesla crash, with 10 total deaths recorded in the findings. In 25 of those collisions, the autopilot system was reportedly involved.

During the first half of 2021, there were two separate instances of a Tesla self-driving car accident death where some autonomous features may have been enabled. In mid-April, two men were killed in Texas after the vehicle left the road and collided with a tree. Despite initial police reports announcing that neither occupant was behind the wheel at the time of the crash, the role of autonomous vehicle control in the accident remains under investigation.

Another fatal crash occurred in May outside of Los Angeles when a Tesla hit an overturned semi on the road, killing the driver and seriously injuring another motorist who had stopped to assist the truck driver. Even though the case is officially still under investigation, the California Highway Patrol announced that autonomous features were at least partially responsible for the accident.

In the event of injury or death, who is responsible for self-driving car accidents?

Laws regarding self-driving cars are still in the early stages in most states (in the event there are any laws at all). However, as more accidents with self-driving cars occur, and the resulting cases make their way through court, legal precedents are gradually being established.

In 2018, just weeks after Arizona Governor Ducey issued a new executive order as an update to his 2015 autonomous vehicle order, a pedestrian was killed by a self-driving vehicle as they were crossing the street. It was reported that the vehicle was being tested by Uber in auto-pilot mode, and that the car’s operator had been looking down at the time. Shortly after, Uber was ordered to suspend autonomous vehicle testing operations in the state.

Although there is evidence to suggest that Uber as a company was at fault (with certain automated safety features reportedly tuned to prioritize ride smoothness over safety), prosecutors declined to bring charges against the company itself. Instead, the operator of the autonomous vehicle was indicted on charges of negligent homicide. Initially scheduled for early February in 2021, the trial has been postponed twice and is now set for the 10th of August.

Navigating Legal Issues with Autonomous Vehicles and Seeking Compensation for Injuries

Ultimately, the NHTSA sees automated driving systems (ADS) as a feature that will reduce the frequency of car accidents and save lives, anticipating full highway autopilot as early as 2025. Despite this, autonomous vehicle control is still relatively early in the development phase, and the number of related accidents is rising. With few laws regarding self-driving cars in effect, and even fewer court cases resolved to establish a precedent, the legal ground surrounding self-driving car accidents is largely in untested ground.

If you’ve been injured as a result of an autopilot car crash (or in an instance where you believe autonomous vehicle control may have been involved), taking your case to a personal injury firm like Avrek Law that has a track record in successfully resolving cutting-edge automotive cases is the best way to recover proper compensation for your injuries. With more than $1 billion recovered for personal injury victims, our firm has more than 50 years of combined experience resolving cases in favor of our clients.

Have more questions about how the self-driving cars debate could affect your case? Avrek Law provides free consultations and may be able to help – contact us to learn more!

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