The increase in the use of autonomous vehicles on NC highways has ushered in a new era of mobility and safety innovations. However, as these cutting-edge technologies become more prevalent, legal professionals are facing novel challenges when accidents involving self-driving cars occur. In many of these cases, an approach incorporating innovative legal strategies and a deep understanding of the complexities is involved.

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One of the primary focuses in addressing accidents involving self-driving vehicles is the determination of liability. Unlike conventional car accidents where human error often plays a central role, incidents involving autonomous vehicles introduce a myriad of factors to consider. Entities potentially responsible for the accident may include the vehicle manufacturer, the developer of the autonomous system, the owner or operator of the vehicle, or a combination thereof. Legal professionals must analyze the circumstances surrounding the accident to ascertain liability, taking into account factors such as the vehicle’s programming, adherence to safety standards, and the actions of human occupants.

Autonomous Vehicle Accidents Analysis of Evidence

Another critical aspect of handling accidents involving self-driving vehicles is the collection and analysis of evidence. While traditional methods of evidence gathering remain valid, such as witness statements and police reports, etc, additional layers of complexity arise in cases involving autonomous vehicles. Data from onboard sensors, cameras, and the vehicle’s operating system provide valuable insights into the events leading up to the accident. Car accident attorneys must possess the technical acumen to interpret this data effectively, reconstructing the sequence of events and identifying any malfunctions or errors in the autonomous system.

Regulatory Framework Governing Autonomous Vehicles

Moreover, understanding the regulatory framework governing autonomous vehicles is essential in litigating these cases. As self-driving cars operate on public roads, they are subject to a myriad of federal, state, and local regulations pertaining to safety, operation, and licensing. Legal professionals must stay informed about the evolving regulatory landscape, ensuring compliance with applicable laws and regulations while advocating for their clients’ rights.

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Coordinating Investigations Involving Multiple Agencies

Additionally, effective communication and collaboration with various stakeholders are critical in addressing accidents involving self-driving vehicles. This may involve engaging with government agencies, industry regulators, and insurance companies to coordinate investigations and negotiate settlements. Advocating for accident victims and ensuring they receive fair compensation for their injuries and losses remains a top priority for a car accident attorney in these often complex cases.

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Can Drivers Claim ‘No Fault’ For Accidents In Self Driving Vehicles?

There are many cases of accidents involving self-drive vehicles where the driver claims not to have contributed in any way to the actions of the vehicle leading up to the crash. And as autonomous vehicle numbers increase on our roads, so will the number of accidents reported. You can find statistics by visiting reputable websites like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), or academic research journals. These sources regularly publish reports and studies on autonomous vehicle accidents, providing valuable insights and statistics. Simply visit their websites and search for relevant publications to access the most up-to-date information on this topic.

What Exactly Is A Self-Driving Car?

At this point we should consider what is a “self-driving” vehicle and look at some the of various nomenclature used to label these vehicles.

A self-driving vehicle, also known as an autonomous vehicle, is an automobile that is capable of navigating and operating itself without direct human input. These vehicles use a combination of sensors, cameras, radars, and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to perceive the environment, interpret road signs, detect obstacles, and make driving decisions.

There are several levels of autonomy in self-driving vehicles, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International:

  1. Level 0: No Automation – The driver performs all tasks, and there is no automation in the vehicle.
  2. Level 1: Driver Assistance – The vehicle can assist with specific tasks, such as steering or accelerating, but the driver must remain engaged and monitor the environment.
  3. Level 2: Partial Automation – The vehicle can control both steering and acceleration/deceleration simultaneously under certain conditions, but the driver must still monitor the environment and be ready to take over at any time.
  4. Level 3: Conditional Automation – The vehicle can handle most driving tasks in certain conditions, but the driver must be available to take control when requested by the system.
  5. Level 4: High Automation – The vehicle can perform all driving tasks in specific conditions or environments without human intervention, but the driver may still need to take control in certain situations.
  6. Level 5: Full Automation – The vehicle is capable of performing all driving tasks under all conditions without any human intervention. There is no need for a steering wheel or pedals.

The level of driver involvement varies depending on the autonomy level of the vehicle. In lower levels of automation (e.g., Level 1 or Level 2), the driver is actively involved in driving and must remain attentive to the road and ready to take control if needed. As the level of automation increases, the driver’s role diminishes, and they may only need to intervene in rare situations or emergencies.

In Level 5 vehicles, there is no driver involvement in driving tasks, as the vehicle is fully capable of operating itself in any situation. Instead, passengers can relax and engage in other activities while the vehicle handles all aspects of driving.

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Can you see how the above might be confusing to the owner of a new vehicle? What exactly is my involvement requirement as a driver of the vehicle and how much responsibility am I able to hand-off to the vehicle’s technology? 

To compound the issue, there’s a myriad of terms used when describing these vehicles. One manufacturer alone has at least 10 terms associated with it’s self-driving vehicles:

  • Tesla Autopilot
  • Tesla Full Self-Driving (FSD)
  • Tesla Enhanced Autopilot (EAP)
  • Tesla Navigate on Autopilot (NOA)
  • Tesla Driver Assist System (DAS)
  • Tesla Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS)
  • Tesla Automated Driving System (ADS)
  • Tesla Autonomous Driving Capability (ADC)
  • Tesla Self-Driving Technology (SDT)
  • Tesla Autosteer

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Understanding The Level Of Technology In Your Vehicle and Your Responsibility As The Driver

Understanding the level of automation in a vehicle can be challenging for drivers, as it often requires familiarity with technical terms and complex automotive systems. Many drivers may not fully comprehend the capabilities and limitations of their vehicle’s autonomous features, leading to confusion about their responsibilities while driving.

One issue arises from the fact that different vehicles may have different levels of automation, even within the same brand or model year. For example, one car may offer advanced driver assistance features that provide partial automation (e.g., Level 2), while another model from the same manufacturer may have more limited capabilities. This inconsistency can make it difficult for drivers to accurately assess the extent to which their vehicle can operate autonomously.

Compounding this challenge is the phenomenon of automation complacency, where drivers become overly reliant on autonomous features and underestimate the need for their continued attention and intervention. Some drivers may mistakenly believe that their vehicle is capable of fully autonomous operation, leading them to engage in distracting activities or even fall asleep behind the wheel.

It’s crucial for drivers to understand that, regardless of the level of automation in their vehicle, they are ultimately responsible for its safe operation. Even in vehicles with advanced autonomous features, drivers must remain attentive, keep their hands on the steering wheel, and be prepared to take control at a moment’s notice. Failure to do so can have severe consequences, including accidents, injuries, and legal liabilities.

To address these issues, automakers and regulators must work together to improve driver education and promote clear communication about the capabilities and limitations of autonomous technologies. This includes providing comprehensive training on how to use autonomous features safely and effectively, as well as implementing systems to alert drivers when their attention is required. Additionally, ongoing research and development efforts are needed to enhance the reliability and robustness of autonomous systems, reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings and errors on the part of drivers.

Therefore the chances of winning a case by claiming zero driver fault or liability for an accident, and claiming that autonomous vehicle technology was at fault, are quite low.

Let’s take a look at some of the accidents involving self-driving vehicles where the drivers claim not to have contributed to the accident:

  • Rear-end Collisions: In situations where an autonomous vehicle abruptly stops or slows down unexpectedly, causing a rear-end collision, the driver may claim they were not in control of the vehicle’s actions.
  • Intersection Collisions: Accidents occurring at intersections where the autonomous vehicle fails to yield or misjudges traffic flow might lead to claims by the driver that they were unable to intervene in time to prevent the collision.
  • Pedestrian or Cyclist Collisions: If an autonomous vehicle fails to detect a pedestrian or cyclist in its path, resulting in a collision, the driver may argue that they couldn’t have prevented the accident due to reliance on the vehicle’s technology.
  • Sudden Lane Changes or Swerves: Accidents caused by sudden lane changes or swerves by autonomous vehicles, possibly due to sensor malfunctions or misinterpretation of road conditions, could lead to claims by the driver that they were unable to override the vehicle’s actions.
  • Malfunction-related Accidents: In cases where the autonomous vehicle experiences a mechanical or technological malfunction leading to an accident, the driver may assert that they were not at fault since they were relying on the vehicle’s systems to operate safely.

While claims may be made against the manufacturer of the vehicle using self-drive technology, often times it is determined that the driver was at fault.

When Things Go Terribly Wrong.

– An example of both vehicle and driver shortcomings is spotlighted in the tragic case of Jeremy Banner, who engaged Tesla’s Autopilot system while driving his Model 3 in Delray Beach, Florida, in 2019. Despite warnings to maintain attention and be ready to take control, Banner’s hands were not detected on the wheel as his vehicle approached a semi-truck. The Tesla collided with the truck, resulting in Banner’s death. His family sued Tesla, arguing that the company’s marketing of Autopilot led to a false sense of security. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation found Banner should have been attentive, but also criticized Tesla for allowing drivers to disengage. The case highlights the challenges in determining liability and regulating autonomous driving technology. The Washington Post provide an indepth reconstruction of this tragic case here, and this single incident highlights what happens when a driver apparently over-estimates the capabilities of his self-driving vehicle.

“Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In its response to the Banner family’s complaint, Tesla said, “The record does not reveal anything that went awry with Mr. Banner’s vehicle, except that it, like all other automotive vehicles, was susceptible to crashing into another vehicle when that other vehicle suddenly drives directly across its path.” Source Washington Post

Dealing with accidents involving self-driving vehicles demands a comprehensive approach that integrates legal expertise, technical proficiency, and regulatory knowledge. In navigating this complex terrain, car accident attorneys stand as indispensable resources for their clients. They employ important strategies to address the intricate legal challenges posed by autonomous transportation accidents. With a deep understanding of the evolving regulatory framework and the technical intricacies of self-driving technology, car accident attorneys play a crucial role in advocating for their clients’ rights and ensuring accountability in the aftermath of such accidents.

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