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Pennsylvania Struggles With Autonomous Vehicle Accident Liability

With technological advances continuing to move forward in the realm of autonomous (driverless) vehicles, many questions regarding liability for accidents that result in injuries, fatalities, or property damage remain largely unanswered. Based on the individual circumstances, a case can be made that the blame be attributed to the manufacturer, software engineers or programmers, vehicle seller, and obviously the vehicle owner or operator.

Andrew Enders, speaking on behalf of the Enders Insurance Association brokerage, agrees that formal standards are lacking. In the meanwhile costly litigation is likely to arise following such accidents, particularly when the vehicle is operating in a driverless mode.

Pennsylvania Lawmaker Involvement

Entities within both the public and private sector have been active in seeking solutions to the issue. Some insurance providers do offer coverage for “semi-autonomous” vehicle operation; however, the industry is still largely in the early stages of development. State officials gathered in August at Phoenix Contact USA for a conference to discuss the concerns.

Representative Greg Rothman has been active in trying to make some progress and expressed concern. Nolan Ritchie, executive director of the state’s Senate Transportation Committee, acknowledged that “numerous parties could be liable for accidents involving autonomous vehicles”.

Insurance Industry Concerns

It is clear that the blame for such crashes could be placed on the manufacturer, dealership, or driver. Andrew Enders thinks that ultimately the result will be “a mix” based on the circumstances. He says that some within the insurance industry are not comfortable with providing coverage for the Tesla models; however, his agency is now beginning to see limited coverage offered from The Cincinnati Insurance Company, Safeco Insurance, and Chubb LTD. He says that many policies contain clauses that deny coverage for semi-autonomous vehicles while they operate in an “autopilot” mode.

Pennsylvania Legislation

The state does not presently have any laws regulating self-operating vehicles, except a requirement that a person be seated in the driver seat behind the wheel at all times. S.B. 427 is a proposal that will allow for autonomous vehicles to be tested. S.B. 1096 seeks to address some of the following:

  • May allow “highly” automated vehicles to be used in work zones by the PennDOT and the PA Turnpike Commission
  • These highly automated vehicles may have:
    • A programmed system for operation (driving)
    • Wireless connectivity that may communicate with other vehicles
    • The ability to remotely (wireless) control movements
  • Allow for vehicle “platooning”, which is where groups of military-style or motor carrier vehicles driven close together in a uniform manner

Tesla Accident Claim

The Claims Journal reported on a controversial claim brought by a Utah woman against Tesla seeking over $300,000 in compensation. She was in her Model S operating in a semi-autonomous mode when the vehicle collided into a stopped firetruck at an intersection. Heather Lommatzsch says she was told the vehicle would automatically brake in these scenarios. She says that when she attempted to apply the brakes herself just prior to the collision that they did not engage.

Las Vegas Pilot Program

Much of the negative news surrounding autonomous vehicles overshadows some of the successful ventures. In Las Vegas, a partnership between Aptiv and Lyft has led to a relatively productive pilot program using driverless vehicles as passenger shuttles. An estimated 32,000 trips have been completed with only three minor accidents that resulted in no injuries. Passengers have overwhelmingly been satisfied with the service based on survey feedback.

About the Author

Charles GilmanCharles Gilman
Charles Gilman

As managing partner and co-founder of Gilman & Bedigian, it is my mission to help our clients recover and get their lives back on track. I strongly believe that every person who is injured by a wrongful act deserves compensation, and I will do my utmost to bring recompense to those who need and deserve it.


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