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Are You Liable If Your Self-Driving Car Causes A Car Accident?


A recent car crash near Gainesville, Florida is being examined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which has already been investigating Tesla’s Autopilot since August 2021. According to a report by Tampa Bay News, a semi-truck was parked in the southbound rest area parking lot of Interstate 75. The Tesla entered the lot and somehow crashed into the back of the semi. Both the Tesla driver and passenger died in the car accident.

The NHTSA announced it was launching a “special crash investigation” into what led up to the deadly crash. This comes after a June 2022 announcement that it was expanding its existing investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot active driver assistance system. However, this case is still early, and investigators cannot yet say what factors contributed to the crash. The crash could have been caused by driver error or a medical issue and may not have been Autopilot’s fault.

But what happens if it was Autopilot’s fault?

Self-driving systems are not only available in Tesla’s anymore. Many new cars offer a “hands-free” driving feature, and it appears the trend will only continue to become more popular as the evolution of motor vehicle operation progresses. However, currently it appears semantics play a key role here.

For example, Tesla doesn’t use the term “driverless car,” they call their Autopilot feature a ‘driver-assist system’ insisting the vehicles are not autonomous. According to their website, “Tesla Autopilot relieves drivers of the most tedious and potentially dangerous aspects of road travel.” Tesla claims that the Autopilot function is available to give drivers more confidence behind the wheel, increase safety on the road, and make highway driving more enjoyable. They explicitly state that “the driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car.”

Although that places the onus squarely on the driver, some experts believe that the focus will shift from personal liability to manufacturer liability as more self-driving cars vehicles hit the roads and become involved in car accidents. However, for now, it is still up to the driver to keep an eye on the road at all times while they are behind the wheel to prevent personal injuries and wrongful deaths.

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