Autonomous vehicles have been called the future of transportation. While the technology is not here, yet, it does seem evident that it is just a matter of time before driverless vehicles are the norm on the roads of Philadelphia.
While there are numerous benefits to autonomous vehicles – they would reduce traffic by being able to drive closer together, would help the environment by conserving fuel, and would eliminate the strain of commutes – there are also numerous complications, as well. Among those complications are who pays for the costs of an accident, should something go wrong, and how autonomous vehicles are to be regulated, to reduce the risks they pose to innocent people.
The personal injury lawyers at the Philadelphia law office of Gilman & Bedigian explain.
How Autonomous Vehicles Work
Autonomous vehicles are designed to navigate the roads, and all of their attendant dangers, without the help or input of a human driver.
To do this, autonomous vehicles are outfitted with dozens of sensors that measure and analyze as much as possible about the vehicle's surroundings, including:
- Weather conditions
- Road conditions
- Location of other vehicles on the road
- Speed and direction of other vehicles
- Road hazards, like potholes
All of this data is fed to a computer that operates the autonomous vehicle in a way that minimizes risk to its passenger and to other vehicles on the road, all while getting the passenger to their destination.
The day when completely autonomous vehicles dominate the roads of Philadelphia is not far away. In fact, there are numerous cars on the roads, today, that use autonomous features – albeit features that are very limited in scope. For example, lots of new cars come with the ability to park themselves without the driver's input or guidance. They use cameras or sensors that “see” obstacles, objects, and other cars, determine where the lines or curb is, and then feed that information to a computer that maneuvers the vehicle into a parking position that is frequently far better than what a human driver could achieve.
These semi-autonomous vehicles are not just limited to parking. Some carmakers, like Tesla, have experimented with “autopilot” modes that allow a driver to relax a little bit at the wheel while the car maintains speed and course and stays in an established lane. These systems are close to a fully autonomous ride, but still require the attention of the driver to make more complicated moves and decisions, and to intervene quickly if something goes wrong.
Legal Issues Created By Autonomous Vehicles
Even these semi-autonomous vehicles highlight the potential for complex legal issues, should something go wrong and someone gets hurt: issues about who is ultimately to blame and who should be held liable for the costs of an accident are often fuzzy. Determining what went wrong can be incredibly nuanced, and figuring out who should be held responsible can be complex. Nevertheless, accident victims who were not responsible for their injuries should not have to pay for their losses.
A Difficult Fact-Finding Process
Perhaps the most pressing concerns in the field of autonomous vehicles are the difficulties that will be associated with figuring out exactly what went wrong after a self-driving car crashes. Autonomous vehicles are designed to move by digesting lots of data that is collected by its sensors and cameras and then reacting accordingly. Tracing what happened, and where things went wrong, is not going to be as simple as it is for crashes that involve human drivers – eyewitness accounts, vehicle damage, and tire marks are not going to be enough to determine who was liable in an accident involving an autonomous vehicle.
Instead, investigators will have to figure out exactly what program or feature of an autonomous vehicle broke down or failed and caused the crash. Determining what happened is necessary in order to assign liability, as autonomous vehicles involve lots of components and programs, with each one being designed, manufactured, and installed by different people.
The Many Companies Behind an Autonomous Vehicle
Figuring out exactly what happened is essential because there are so many companies and people behind every autonomous vehicle, and holding one defendant responsible – and financially liable – for the actions or mistakes of someone else would be unjust.
For an innocent victim, though, the difficulties that this poses for their case and for their claim for compensation are not small. A single autonomous vehicle could have dozens of companies and individuals behind its operation, including:
- The vehicle manufacturer, like Toyota, Honda, Mercedes, BMW, or Tesla
- The company responsible for the computers that make the vehicle autonomous, like Google's subsidiary Waymo or the company Uber
- The company that designs the external sensors on the vehicle that relay information to the computers that drive the car
- The company that installs or maintains those external sensors
- The company that provides cybersecurity for the autonomous vehicle
Figuring out what went wrong is a critical part of determining which of these parties should be held liable for the crash and its resulting costs.
Another potential legal issue that autonomous vehicles can raise is what happens if a vehicle gets hacked and crashes.
On the one hand, the ultimate culprit in these situations is the hacker. However, the odds that law enforcement will be able to track them down is minimal, and the odds that they will have the finances to cover the costs of the accident is laughable: their insurance is almost guaranteed to refuse to cover the crash because it was caused by the hacker's intentional conduct, and even minor car crashes often cost several thousands of dollars.
On the other hand, though, it would not be unreasonable to expect autonomous vehicles to be secured from all but the most sophisticated hacking attempts. With this in mind, a successful hacking attempt would seem to indicate that the autonomous vehicle's cybersecurity team should be held responsible for a crash caused by a hacker. However, proving that a particular hacking attempt should have been thwarted is going to be incredibly difficult in a personal injury case.
In theory, the technology behind autonomous vehicles is supposed to develop to such an extent that vehicles can determine the precise risks they are facing on the road, as well as the likelihood of a serious injury to their passengers. Should this potential ever materialize, an inevitable result would be autonomous vehicle crashes that are designed to minimize damage.
For example, imagine two autonomous vehicles are driving on the road on a windy day, and a tree snaps and is falling across the road. The computers in the cars note the risk and quickly determine that the only way for Car A to avoid the falling tree is to slam on the brakes and cause a crash with Car B. This crash comes with an 80 percent chance of a serious injury to the passenger in each car. However, if Car A continues into the tree, there is a 95 percent chance that the passenger in Car A dies, while the passenger in Car B escapes unscathed.
In either case, an autonomous vehicle will have made a calculated decision that guarantees an innocent victim – if Car A hits Car B, then the passenger in Car B will probably get seriously hurt. If no accident happens, then the passenger in Car A is put in far more risk than necessary.
Assigning liability for the crash in these circumstances is likely to be incredibly tricky.
One legal problem that autonomous vehicles actually simplify is the issue of shared liability.
Car accidents that involve multiple human drivers are rarely caused by the actions of only one driver. Instead, the two drivers often share the blame for the crash, at least to some extent. A common example is when a crash happens because one driver was distracted, but the other driver was speeding. When both the distraction and the speed contributed to the crash and the resulting injuries, the victim and eventual plaintiff in a personal injury claim can be found partially at fault for their injuries. In Philadelphia, the percentage of the plaintiff's shared liability can reduce their recovery or, if the plaintiff is found to have been more than half responsible for the crash, can prevent them from recovering any compensation, at all.
For autonomous vehicles, though, the injured victims are almost always going to be completely blameless for a crash. Unless they take affirmative action to make the autonomous vehicle lose control – like if they take control of the wheel and try driving, themselves – the question of shared liability will not come up in an accident involving a self-driving car.
A potential solution to some of these pressing legal issues is the concept of enterprise liability. Enterprise liability is a way of compensating an innocent victim without requiring them to determine exactly who was ultimately at fault for their injuries and losses. As long as the plaintiff can show that the responsible party was one of a small handful of defendants, those defendants can be held jointly liable for the victim's losses. Under enterprise liability, a victim can recover the compensation they deserve, and then the defendants can be left to sort out amongst themselves who was ultimately liable.
For example, if an autonomous vehicle suddenly runs off the road and crashes into a tree, the passenger can get seriously hurt. If it becomes clear that the passenger did not do anything to trigger the car veering off the road, then the passenger deserves to be compensated for the injuries that they did not cause. The only question becomes who should be held liable – the car manufacturer, the company behind the self-driving technology, the crew that runs the sensors that feed data to the self-driving computers, the cybersecurity team, or someone else?
Under enterprise liability, everyone is held liable. The innocent victim can recover the compensation they deserve from any one of them, and leave the potentially culpable parties to fight amongst themselves over who was actually responsible.
Compensation Available for Victims of an Autonomous Vehicle Crash
In Philadelphia, personal injury law is designed to compensate innocent victims for the losses they have sustained through no fault of their own. This compensation goes beyond just the costs of the medical care that has helped you recover from your injuries, and strives to make an innocent victim whole – or at least as whole as possible after the injuries they have suffered.
The types of compensation that you can recover in a successful personal injury lawsuit include:
- Medical expenses: The costs of the medical care that were reasonably necessary to recover from the injuries that you sustained is the core element of a personal injury case, and includes the estimated expenses you are likely to incur in the future.
- Professional repercussions: The injuries you sustained in an autonomous vehicle crash are likely to keep you out of work while you recover, and can impact your ability to make an income in the future. Your lost wages and reduced ability to earn a living can be recovered in a successful lawsuit.
- Pain and suffering: While it can be difficult to put a precise dollar amount on the physical pain you have been put through and the negative feelings of loss and anguish that you experienced after the crash, that does not mean you should bear them without compensation.
Gilman & Bedigian: Autonomous Vehicle Crash Lawyers in Philadelphia
Autonomous vehicles seem to be an inevitable part of life in the near future. While they will come with lots of benefits, the legal system will have to adapt to make sure innocent victims are compensated for the injuries and losses that they did not cause and could not have avoided. The costs of these situations should fall on the companies responsible for them, and that are reaping the financial rewards of providing autonomous vehicles for people to use.
Compensating victims and holding companies accountable for their mistakes and actions is what the personal injury lawyers at the Philadelphia law office of Gilman & Bedigian do. While autonomous vehicles are not yet a fundamental part of our lives, the personal injury attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian are preparing for when they are. With their help and legal representation, innocent accident victims can recover the compensation they need after being an unfortunate part of an accident involving an autonomous vehicle in the Philadelphia region.
Contact them online for legal help.