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Assessing Accountability: The Critical Role of Driver Responsibility in Autopilot Technology

Autopilot technology in vehicles can be a step into the future when used correctly, but there are an onslaught of dangerous possibilities when it comes to automated driving. Driver assistance features can help cars observe the speed limit, brake safely in emergencies, and stay within their designated lane. However, when drivers take autopilot technology for granted and ignore the vehicle manufacturer’s safety instructions, getting behind the wheel can become incredibly dangerous. 

In this article, we’ll explore the legal considerations involved in self-driving technology. Who is at fault in a wreck with a self-driving car? What rights do collision victims have when the other car was self-driving? While the answers to these questions are still being decided in courts, we’ll shed light on the clarity that exists today for drivers.

Self-Driving Vehicles: What Are They?

The world is transitioning to a roadway of self-driving vehicles at full throttle. According to a 2023 report published by the World Economic Forum, 98 percent of new cars in the year 2025 will feature at least partly assisted driving technology.

While, for now, this is just an estimate, the number is based off our lived reality. In 2020, 85.6 percent of new cars featured at least partly assisted driving technology, with almost 30 percent of models earning the classification of “assisted driving” vehicles.

Self-driving or “autopilot” vehicle systems are intended to function solely as a driver-assistance tool. While the Waymo driverless taxis currently operate in Phoenix, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Austin,  under no circumstances anywhere in the U.S. are any private cars on the road today permitted to drive without a fully alert human driver behind the wheel.

Drivers are always required to be in control of their vehicles while driving and must remain completely engaged. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “every vehicle currently for sale in the United States requires the full attention of the driver at all times for safe operation.”

The Limitations of Autopilot Technology:

While fully automated vehicles are currently being designed, tested, and developed, they are not currently for sale in U.S. markets. The United States Department of Transportation categorizes vehicles programmed with driver assistance technology on a scale of 0-5:

  • Level 0: Momentary Driver Assistance: Provides driver alerts, but the driver must fully operate the vehicle (steer, brake, and accelerate).
  • Level 1: Driver Assistance: Assists with acceleration and braking or steering, while the driver remains engaged.
  • Level 2: Additional Assistance: Assists with acceleration, braking and steering, while the driver remains engaged.
  • Level 3: Conditional Automation: These vehicle systems handle all aspects of driving, with drivers taking over “when requested,” or due to the limitations of the system.
  • Level 4: High Automation: These vehicle systems handle all aspects of driving in most terrains, but do not have universal capabilities.
  • Level 5: Full Automation: These vehicle systems are programmed to operate a vehicle under any conditions and on any roadway, without the need for a human driver.

No vehicles available for purchase on the United States consumer market operate at Level 3 or higher. A “self-driving” Tesla vehicle with full “Autopilot” branded capabilities, for example, would only be classified as a Level 2 system.

From a legal standpoint, this classification is significant. The driver of a vehicle, even if operating under full “Autopilot” capabilities, is still liable for his or her own actions (or inactions) behind the wheel. Level 2 cars are the current “peak” of self-driving cars sold for personal use permitted on the roads today. The World Economic Forum reports that “in levels 1 and 2, the driver can be assisted by the autonomous driving systems, yet he or she can not turn attention away from the road.”

Self-Driving Vehicles in the Courts

In September of 2023, Tesla found itself in hot water after a tragic fatality involving one of its Autopilot vehicles. In the span of seconds, a Tesla Model 3 vehicle veered off a California highway at 65 miles per hour, striking a tree and catching on fire, tragically taking the life of its driver. The crash also seriously injured two passengers, including an 8-year-old child.

Court records show that the driver was intoxicated, and likely not operating the vehicle in the attentive manner that he should have been. Critics of self-driving vehicles have asserted that the technology creates a false sense of safety and confidence in drivers, whose subsequent disengagement can be deadly. Drivers may be apt to forget their legal requirement to keep all attention on the task of driving and on the road itself.

According to publicly available court documents, the Autopilot system was in “beta testing” and allegedly not ready for release at the time of the accident, which took place in 2019. Tesla has also been in the courts on a larger scale: in 2022, a large, multi-state class action was filed against the vehicle manufacturer. The suit’s complaint alleges that Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk, knew about the Autopilot system’s shortcomings and pushed vehicles to market anyway. In October of 2023, The Washington Post reports the company was under fire again when a Tesla vehicle slammed into a semi-truck, instantly killing its driver, a father of four.

While Tesla has earned an onslaught of negative media attention over its faulty self-driving systems, it isn’t the only manufacturer in the space. During the operation of any self driving vehicle, drivers are required by law to remain alert and attentive.

Your Rights as a Victim of a Collision With a Self-Driving Vehicle

If you’ve been the victim of a collision involving a self-driving vehicle, you have rights. The self-driving technology of the other driver’s vehicle does not release them from their obligation to follow traffic laws and remain alert. While the law in the self-driving automobile space is still developing, the concept of deserved liability is evergreen.

Depending on the circumstances of your collision, liability (legal responsibility for the accident) may rightfully be placed on the manufacturer of the vehicle, the developer of the self-driving software, the driver of the vehicle, or all three parties.

An experienced personal injury attorney is in the best place to consider the circumstances of your accident and evaluate your potential claims. You deserve to have someone at your side to help you work through what has happened and inform you of your rights and options.