When an autonomous vehicle hits a pedestrian, who is responsible?

This article looks at who is liable when a self-driving car strikes a pedestrian, as recently happened in Arizona.

The tragic incident in Tempe, Arizona earlier this year involving a pedestrian who was fatally struck by a self-driving Uber vehicle has highlighted concerns about autonomous vehicles. As The New Republic reports, the crash makes urgent what has, until now, been mostly a hypothetical question: when an autonomous vehicle strikes a pedestrian or cyclist, who is responsible? The question is an important one for those pursuing claims after being injured in an autonomous vehicle crash. However, because autonomous vehicles are still a new and largely unregulated technology and because there is not much case law to go by, answering this question is proving difficult both for legal experts and safety advocates.

A lack of regulation

The accident in question happened in Arizona, which, in a bid to attract self-driving car companies, has largely left autonomous vehicles unregulated. While a licensed driver is required to be in the car and to take over to avoid a collision, the fact that autonomous cars largely operate themselves means that a driver may not be paying full attention to their surroundings. Video from the Tempe crash, for example, shows the driver looking down at her lap just seconds before the accident.

Furthermore, insurance regulators in that state have largely taken a "wait-and-see" approach to civil liability in crashes between self-driving cars and pedestrians.

While California has more regulations of self-driving cars than Arizona does, the technology is still moving quickly in the Golden State. In fact, as Reuters reports, California regulators recently indicated that they would soon allow self-driving cars to pick up passengers without a backup driver being in the vehicles. That announcement shows that even after the tragic incident in Arizona, self-driving cars are not going away anytime soon.

Who is responsible?

Unfortunately, answering the question of who is to blame when a self-driving car hits a pedestrian is not easy. Liability may rest with the vehicle's owner, the backup driver, or the manufacturer. An accident involving an autonomous vehicle may rest primarily in the realm of product liability. Courts, lawmakers, and regulators may decide that if a self-driving car hits a pedestrian, through no fault of the pedestrian, then the problem rests with the product (i.e., the self-driving vehicle). That would open up the car manufacturers to liability claims in such accidents.

At the end of the day, however, it remains largely unclear who is currently liable when a pedestrian, cyclist, or other road user gets hurt by an autonomous vehicle. The issue is likely to remain unresolved until lawmakers issue clearer liability guidelines or courts take up a case that helps establish liability in such accidents.

Representation for accident victims

Anybody who has been hurt in an accident should contact a personal injury attorney as soon as possible. Particularly for pedestrians and cyclists, injuries stemming from a motor vehicle accident are likely to be serious. An attorney can provide representation for such victims and help them pursue whatever compensation they may be entitled to.

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