Who’s Responsible When a Self-Driving Car Crashes?

 

As you may have heard, Google is involved in just about every technology. They’re probably developing cancer cures and contacting space aliens to sell them advertising. Okay, not really, but we do know they’re currently designing and testing a self-driving car. In fact, their self-driving cars have been on the road for a while in Nevada and California, racking up hundreds of thousands of miles.

And now, finally, Google’s self-driving car has been involved in its first crash: a fender bender with another Prius. Or a four-car accident, depending on whom you ask.

Google claims that, at the time, the car was being driven by a Google employee, and that employee is at fault for the accident: not Google’s experimental system. Some are skeptical, especially since Google doesn’t seem willing to release the traffic report. On the other hand, nobody was seriously injured, and Google is naturally paying for the cars its staffer damaged, and probably firing the staffer as well.

Still, this raises the question of who, precisely, is responsible when a self-driving car crashes? The answer is … whoever is behind the wheel. At least for now. But it turns out to be an extremely complex legal question that nobody’s terribly eager to dig into.

The basic law, so far, is simply this: if you’re behind the wheel, you’re responsible for what your car does, whether you’re the one in control or not. Legally speaking, even though Google’s system of computers and range finders is impressively complex, it’s still just a fancy cruise control. And, frankly, police have been dealing with people who own more car gadgets than they do common sense for years; there’s little Google can throw at them that will faze them.

This means that if you turn on your car’s self-driving system, you’re essentially giving up any chance of contesting anything that happens on the road. After all, if you weren’t in control of the car, but just letting it do whatever it wants, you’re culpable. Think of any fender bender you’ve been in where it wasn’t immediately clear to an onlooker what happened. Now imagine you weren’t driving … you just own the car.

This creates what, in technical terms, is called “an auto insurance nightmare.” Essentially, so much as turning on one of these systems means you just put yourself at risk. True, there are other systems in cars right now, that range from automatic parallel parking to “adaptive” cruise control that pretty much just asks you to make the turns, and those don’t put you automatically at fault. But Google’s system is more complex. These are essentially robots with a destination in mind.

For now, this is nothing more than a thought exercise. Google has no plans to bring its self-driving system to market in the near future. But, sooner than we think, we may be asking ourselves if it’s really our fault … or the car’s.

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