Liability and Legal Questions of Self-Driving Vehicles in Philadelphia

When they reach the market in large numbers, autonomous vehicles are going to overturn decades of car accident law by drastically changing how liability works. The legal issues that autonomous vehicles bring to the table are likely to be significant enough for statutes and other laws and regulations to be passed to dictate how car accidents will be resolved, though much of the heavy lifting will still be done with existing rules in Pennsylvania's personal injury law.

Here are some of the major liability problems that autonomous vehicles will create, once they become popular.

A Movement Away from Negligence in Car Accidents

Right now, the vast majority of car accidents in Philadelphia are caused by someone's negligence. In most cases, one of the drivers involved was distracted, driving poorly, or made a bad decision that led to a collision. The only way for the driver's conduct to be worse than negligent was if their decisions were intentional or so likely to cause an accident that they would be deemed reckless – situations that are far less common than simple mistakes that happen as the result of someone's negligence on the roads.

However, with autonomous vehicles that drive themselves, the human being in the car is just a passenger. Unless they were to actively take control of the vehicle, they would not responsible for the operation of the car, and so could not be responsible for a crash, if one were to occur.

Without being able to put responsibility on the driver of the vehicle for the costs of an accident involving an autonomous vehicle, Philadelphia's personal injury law has to find liability somewhere else. Only after assigning someone else liability for the crash can compensation be obtained from that person or party and given to the victims of the incident. Where that liability can land, though, would likely depend on factual details of the crash that are going to be incredibly difficult to determine.

Difficult Factual Investigations to Determine Responsibility

Probably the most practical complication in assigning liability after a car crash involving an autonomous vehicle is the difficulty in determining exactly what went wrong to cause the crash.

Reconstructing a car accident is already difficult enough. Multi-vehicle accidents often require accident reconstruction teams and experts to determine what happened. These reconstructions look to numerous factors, including:

  • Tire marks on the road
  • Broken car parts and where they were found on the street
  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Testimony from the drivers and passengers involved
  • Location and severity of vehicle damage
  • The types of vehicles involved

Piecing together all of these factors to determine what happened in a regular crash is tricky. Add an autonomous vehicle into the mix, though, and it gets far more complicated.

Autonomous vehicles use precise GPS devices to “know” their location, as well as sensors to “see” their surroundings, including the presence of other vehicles and objects and even lines on the roadway. All of that information passes through computers that decide how to react in order to ensure the safety of the vehicle's passengers and the others on the roadway. Finally, those decisions are manifested in changes to the operation of the car, itself, like changes in acceleration, brake usage, or turning the steering wheel.

At any point in this process, things can go wrong:

  • The car can fail to detect an object or hazard
  • The vehicle's GPS coordinates can be incorrect
  • Decisions made by the autonomous vehicle can fail to consider important factors or can increase risk, rather than decrease it
  • The autonomous vehicle's driving decision can be incorrectly executed by the car – like if the computer decided that speeding up was the best way to avoid a hazard, but the brake pedal was used, instead

Finding out exactly what went wrong often requires deep dives into the inner workings of an autonomous vehicle. Understanding the computer programs and algorithms that go into operating an autonomous vehicle requires extensive technical experience and knowledge. Worse, those programs are going to be considered trade secrets by the companies that manufacture and operate autonomous vehicles, making it difficult to even access the computer code essential for learning what happened and what went wrong to create the crash.

Lots of Defendants Make Ascertaining Liability Critical

Figuring out precisely what the autonomous vehicle did wrong can be critical for a personal injury case after an accident involving a self-driving car because of how many companies and other parties are involved in the case. Pinning liability onto a particular defendant is often necessary to win a case, as the law does not like forcing a defendant to pay compensation without proof that they were the one responsible for the crash.

For crashes involving autonomous vehicles, there can easily be a dozen defendants in the case, each of whom could be potentially responsible for the crash. Depending on what went wrong, the defendant who could be found liable would change significantly. For example:

  • Problems with the GPS system used by the self-driving car could implicate the GPS manufacturer, the company behind the vehicle's computer program tasked with reading the GPS device, or even the autonomous vehicle's cybersecurity team if the GPS signal was hacked
  • A miscommunication between the autonomous vehicle's computers and the operation of the vehicle could implicate the company that designed the computer as well as the car manufacturer
  • If the vehicle's sensors failed to detect a hazard and that turned out to be the cause of the crash, it could implicate the companies that designed and made the sensors, as well as the people responsible for installing and even maintaining the sensors

Enterprise Liability in Philadelphia

One potential solution for the liability issues that victims and plaintiffs can face after getting hurt in a self-driving car crash is the legal concept of enterprise liability. This legal concept allows victims to recover compensation without showing exactly who was responsible for the incident, so long as they have filed personal injury claims against all of the parties who could possibly be at fault. Under enterprise liability, once a victim has shown that someone on the defendant's side of the case was responsible for the crash, they can recover the compensation they need from any one of the potentially liable defendants. The defendants who pay that compensation are then free to turn to the defendants who did not pay and seek contribution.

Products Liability Claims

The bulk of lawsuits seeking compensation for injuries sustained in an autonomous vehicle crash will likely use Pennsylvania's products liability law. This body of law holds the companies that design, make, and market products – including self-driving cars – liable for the defects and other shortcomings of what they produce. Because those defects are likely going to play an outsized role in any crash involving an autonomous vehicle, liability will likely rest with whatever company was ultimately responsible for the program or device that failed.

Insurance Issues Created by Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving cars would also upend the insurance industry, as well. Car insurance aims to cover the costs of a car accident if their insured driver was found liable for the crash. However, because people would not even drive autonomous vehicles in Philadelphia, the very concept of car insurance would become obsolete. Instead of requiring drivers to carry a certain level of insurance to drive, autonomous vehicle makers would likely face the need to carry insurance to cover the crashes their vehicles cause, similar to a bus company.

The Likelihood of Legislation

Because automated vehicles are so likely to be a major part of the future of Philadelphia, state statutes and local ordinances are bound to get passed to regulate how self-driving cars are operated. Some of that legislation will likely impact the legal questions of liability that come up with self-driving vehicles.

In Pennsylvania, alone, a handful of bills have been proposed to regulate the inevitability of autonomous vehicles. One of them, House Bill 1958, was even enacted back in 2018, though it does little but define some key terms of self-driving vehicles and create an advisory committee to research and create further legislation for autonomous vehicles.

Philadelphia Personal Injury Lawyers at Gilman & Bedigian

Autonomous or self-driving vehicles are still a ways out in the future. However, recent developments have made it clear that it is only a matter of time before many of the cars on the roads in Philadelphia are driving themselves.

While the overall effects of autonomous vehicles on society are likely to be very beneficial, the law will have to catch up to the changes that they will bring. The old way of resolving car accidents and compensating victims by holding negligent drivers accountable for their actions and liable for their costs will quickly become outmoded. New ways of determining fault and apportioning liability will have to be created.

The personal injury lawyers at the Philadelphia law office of Gilman & Bedigian are watching the developments closely so they can represent the inevitable victim of an autonomous vehicle crash. Contact them online for legal assistance.

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If someone you are close to has been seriously injured or worse, you are naturally devastated not only by what has happened, but by the effect that the injury or loss has had on you and your family. At a time when you're vulnerable, traumatized and emotionally exhausted, you need a team that will support you through the often complex process that lies ahead.

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