It sounds like a bad riddle: If a machine drives a car and crashes into a person, who is at fault? This question came into the limelight in March 2016 when a Tesla vehicle in self-driving mode failed to detect a white truck’s reflection against the bright sky. The crash killed the truck driver and marked the first death in a crash with an autonomous vehicle.

Some consumer groups estimate that self-driving cars will be readily available to the public by 2020. If this prediction comes true, is the legal system ready? Is there a way to tell who is at fault in these cases?

Why are self-driving car crashes complex?

In a crash involving one or two drivers, legal liability (or fault) lies with the person or people who caused the crash. Sometimes this liability is split as a percentage, but it is clear who will pay for the damages. In a situation with an autonomous vehicle, this concept is muddled.

While the human “driver” may be held somewhat at fault, others need to be held responsible. The designer of the software, the manufacturer of the vehicle, the assembly plant, the auto dealer… It may take a disproportionate amount of time to find the responsible party. In the meantime, the vehicles endanger other drivers and injured parties suffer.

Is there a possible solution?

There is debate about who should have authority over these vehicles. Should there be increased federal regulation over all autonomous vehicles? Should it be decided at the state level?

Three major vehicle manufacturers have agreed to be held responsible in the event their autonomous vehicles crash. This includes:

  • Volvo
  • Google
  • Mercedes-Benz

Ideally, this reflects the company’s confidence in their products. However, not all self-driving cars are completely autonomous. Some depend on a human to take over at low speeds or in the event of a crash. This still leaves room for human error and human liability.

As new safety technologies emerge, the legal system must find a way to keep pace. These technologies should keep you and other drivers safe, not cause undue hardship. If you are involved in a crash with a completely autonomous or self-driving vehicle, you may have a complicated legal battle ahead.