February 29, 2016 – in Car Accidents, Personal Injury Law

Google’s self-driving car involved in an accident

Just a couple weeks ago, on Valentine’s Day, a Google self-driving vehicle was involved in a minor traffic accident with a city bus. It may turn out to be a first.

We’ve spoken about self-driving cars before and the legal implications that may come about, and it looks like some of our predictions may be tested shortly. According to Time Magazine, a Google self-driving vehicle (a Lexus SUV equipped with Google AV) was attempting to navigate debris in the street, switched lanes, and hit a municipal bus. 1

The accident took place in Mountain View, California, and while the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority has yet to assign blame for the accident, if Google’s self-driving car is determined to be at fault, it could be a first. While autonomous driving vehicles have been involved in accidents before, this appears to be the first one where a human driver was not directly responsible. Google has said that its autonomous vehicles have never been at fault in any crashes, and they released a statement regarding the incident, saying, “We clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved, there wouldn’t have been a collision. That said, our test driver believed the bus was going to slow or stop to allow us to merge into the traffic, and that there would be sufficient space to do that.” 2

Fortunately, in this particular case, the accident was minor, due to the fact that both vehicles were traveling less than 15 mph. And to Google’s credit, their self-driving cars seem to be extremely safe. Google is also making an effort at transparency by publishing their accident reports on a monthly basis.

But it certainly raises some important questions. For instance, if the accident were more severe and caused an injury, who is liable? Just how much autonomy is warranted or acceptable for a vehicle to have? How much observation and involvement is required from the driver?

Another interesting question is this: what if the accident was caused by or the severity of the accident was exacerbated by a glitch in the software? Tesla is known for releasing over-the-air updates to its fleet, including the software that powers the autonomous driving functionality of the Model S. It is foreseeable that a simple bug in a software update could have serious consequences. Would the manufacturer share in the liability of accidents involving its vehicles?

Only time will tell us the answers. Meanwhile, as manufacturers continue to advance the technology of self-driving vehicles, the law is slow to catch up. Clearly, that will have to change.