What Happens When Your Autonomous Car Crashes?

| Editorial

Autonomous (self-driving) cars will certainly be built to a high level of reliability and safety. However, there will still be the rare case when an autonomous car goes awry and there's a crash. What will happen then?

Autonomous cars are upon us. Sure, it'll be a few years before they are pervasive, but we're already on the leading edge of the technology. For some interesting and informative background, I refer you to the February 2016 issue of Car & Driver, p. 58, "Going to the Dogs." From the intro:

So while we're getting worse behind the wheel, the sensors and algorithms capable of saving us from ourselves are getting better. And although we're not convinced this will ever yield totally hands-off personal transportation, scores of manufacturers are working feverishly to prove us wrong.

Including, we have surmised, Apple.

Even more interesting than cars that are autonomous, but have passengers onboard who are monitoring, is the concept of what one might call a driverless car. For example, "Man Summons Tesla Via Apple Watch, Makes Your Car Look Like A Fossil." In this example, the car simply moves itself from the garage to the driveway, but eventually, freight companies will think seriously about driverless trucks. See: "Self-Driving Trucks Could Rewrite The Rules For Transporting Freight."

All this brings up in my mind the question of who bears responsibility when one of these driverless vehicles makes a terrible mistake. Property is damaged and/or perhaps life is lost.

Of course, the first step is to pave the way for these vehicles to operate legally on the road. This is more than a technical blessing by the government. There are legal ramifications. See, for example, "Federal Government Will Treat Google’s Driverless Car System as a Legal Driver."

A Fine Distinction

Even if a driverless car has the authority to be on the road as a "legal driver," there will still be the question of liability, and that has to fall back to the owner of the vehicle. Until I set up an interview with an expert, I do have an opinion, however.

I suspect, today, that these autonomous vehicles will have to prove themselves, in testing, to the satisfaction of the car insurance companies. Once the vehicles meet those standards, they can be insured against the very small probability of a failure, bug or network outage that causes an accident. If that all works out, the prospective customers of the cars will be comfortable with the purchase—and affordable insurance.

After all, as the Car & Driver article above points out, we are already at the mercy of our car's computers: stability control, anti-lock brakes, collision-avoidance and so on.

Baby steps.

I am sure that, in the future, there will be some high profile court cases that will fine-tune the laws. With Toyota, we've already seen how dangerous software bugs are handled by governments, and so there is ample legal and regulatory precedent to proceed as we have.

From what I've read, it appears that all the parties concerned are proceeding carefully, working out the technology and the legalities. You'll insure your autonomous car just as you insure yourself (and family) against a mental lapse. The difference may well be that cars prove themselves much better drivers than humans. Fewer lives will be lost.

And then, a day will come, when a human being who wants to drive a car on the highway, without computer oversight (gasp!) will have to have a very special test and special driver's license. After all, who will want a human threat to all those expensive autonomous cars and freight trucks ... on the loose?


Traffic jam image via Shutterstock.

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I’m looking forward to driverless cars. I can’t wait for full automation, set your destination and take a nap vehicles. A few years ago I realized that most people on the road don’t want to be driving. They want to get somewhere but they’d rather be eating, chatting, doing their makeup, shaving, reading the paper, playing with the kids, or any of the other things I’ve SEEN people doing as they hurtle down the road at a mile a minute in a couple of tons of steel and plastic. This is the group that will jump at a car that will just get them there while they do something else. When that day comes, those of us that enjoy driving will be much happier. We will finally be sharing the road with vehicles that behave in a halfway predictable manner.  No more morons trying to light a smoke while passing a semi. No more people turning around to yell at the kids on a narrow twisty two lane road. Yes there will be fatalities from automated cars, but I suspect that very quickly the Insurance Industry will figure out that the rate will be much lower than with human drivers.

Of course that’s assuming that the cloud of lawyers that descend on the first fatal accident won’t squash the technology under liability suits.


The Three Modes (of robotic/autonomous vehicles)

Car moving forward should have three modes:
1) autopilot - the user need do nothing except enter destination/route and the user can be anywhere in the car, liability for accidents etc is the car manufacture
2) accident avoidance - the user is in control, but the car will not allow an accident to happen, liability for accidents etc is the car manufacture
3) manual - user is in complete control and can do damage, liability for accidents etc is the current driver

This allows for those that want to drive, to be able to drive but also has the advantage of lower accident rates and even allows for people to sleep, read and/or TXT.

I love that Tesla is pushing it forward and being loud (mistakes will happen without a doubt), Google (and others only autonomous vehicles) will have there place in taxi service, semi-trucks, etc) but for a majority the Three Modes vehicles will be a majority.

PS DUI’s go away, distracted driving (TXTing, reading, eating, putting on makeup) issues go away, accidents are reduced dramatically (but will never be perfect).


It’s almost the end of the work day. You know, I’d really like to be able to go out to my car, say “Siri, Take me home.” and then play a game on my iPad while the car does the driving. Even though I like driving there’s times, like the 15km to and from work, when it’s just not fun. Oh well, that day is not today.


Crashes will be so rare compared to distracted idiots today that there will be a seachange in Insurance, Policing & bad driving in general such that “fault” will be no longer the crux of an accident so much as getting everybody back together on the road from a general fund made up of billions of dollars saved from today’s wasteful paradigm. “Fault” could easily be assigned if need be - maybe cost somebody some bitcoin-age if a few of the vast sensors in replay mode determine that you absolutely created “fault”.
I’m already amazed here in L.A. how many people are depending on their Adaptive Cruise control to brake them on the highways and streets while chillin’ - never mind the boatload of autonomous Teslas cruising around here. I figure I have 20 years left on this planet so darn-it I’m going to miss the good stuff like totally autonomous Freeways.


Nice ‘ideal case’ scenarios being described here.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t take human nature into account.  If you are hoping to drive occasionally even as autonomous cars get fully implemented, mark my words, the day will come when you won’t be able to.  Unpredictable, erratic human drivers are the bane of any transportation system that tries to implement autonomous driving cars.  The guidance problem is just way, way simpler if the actions of all cars on the road are consistent and thus highly predictable.  So what will happen, perhaps not through an outright ban but more likely through ever more restrictive regulation and more expensive licensing, is that human drivers will be crowded out of the roads, especially in urban areas.  For one thing, we know from the airline industry, when an accident happens, it’s always the pilot that gets blamed first, right?  Same thing on the roads, I guarantee.

The more I think about it, the less I think of autonomous this and automated that as an unqualified boon to society.  People say it will give us more time to do more meaningful, productive and fulfilling things.  Well, just looking at recent history, what the digital age gave most people more time to do is to sit on the couch, eat way too much junk food, become myopic (literally), get fat, and contract diabetes.  What will most people do when smart appliances cars eliminate the need to drive and do housework?  Most people will vegetate.  Those who don’t read will ‘don’t read’ more.  Those who Facebook will Facebook more.  Those who sit on the couch will sit on the couch more.

Rob Bowers

Initially, the share of autonomous vehicles will be minimal, with manual mode cars prevailing. During this time, accidents will remain relatively common as autonomous vehicles will find it challenging to completely account for human error. Individuals will own semi-autonomous vehicles, and will take control at times. While in manual mode, the individual will assume liability, while in autonomous mode, manufacturers will be responsible for damages.

Then, a time will come when autonomous vehicles will be as common as manual. We will start seeing “Commuter” lanes where manual vehicles will be prohibited. Accident frequency and severity will be significantly less due to the separation and reduced interface with manually operated vehicles. By this time, autonomous vehicles with no manual override will be common, and individuals using autonomous vehicles will assume no liability, leaving it to manufacturers.

Finally, in 20-30 years, few manual vehicles will remain. Accidents will be virtually eliminated and manual vehicles will either be prohibited from many roads, and isolated from autonomous vehicles on freeways.

During the transition, ownership will change. Individuals will ultimately own few autonomous vehicles. Rather, we will have fleets of vehicles owned by ride sharing companies that we will summon to our location when we need them, and leave them for the next guy when we reach our destination. The fleet owners and manufacturers will be responsible for liability, we will simply be passengers. These cars will have no manual controls, and thus no opportunity for humans to assume liability. DUI laws will no longer be required, and manual vehicles could be required to have interlock systems to prevent DUI, and deter people from buying and using manual controlled vehicles.

In 30 years, homes, office buildings, retail centers, schools, public places will be built with limited or no parking facilities, re-using the space for denser development. We will find ourselves sharing rides more often, the fleet owners will see to it that people traveling from and to similar destinations will be consolidated, or those who refuse to share will be charged premium prices for exclusive use of the fleet vehicles. Longer distance travel will be largely mass transit. Autonomous vehicles will be the collectors to get people to and from mass transit. Parking facilities will be strategically located and developed\maintained by fleet companies, ensuring vehicles are available close to where demand exists and will have charging facilities.

Fleet owners will be able to provide transportation at reasonable rates because there will be fewer overall vehicles due to ride sharing and efficient scheduling. Further, as all electric, maintenance will be minimal, and utilization of the assets will be far greater than the 5% or less utilization we currently experience with vehicle ownership.


Interesting article. Raises a lot of questions, such as:
* Motorcycles: ban them?
* Bicycle delivery services: ban them?
* Dedicated bus lanes?
* Car size? I’m thinking small/2-seat as the norm.


Small 2-seat cars as the norm?  So you foresee a future where people don’t reproduce anymore?


No, I am speaking to the to <=> from work commute, 5 or 6 days a week.  Commuters with young families would either order a larger vehicle for evening & weekend use, or maybe buy one.

Eventually, major cities will resemble NYC, with public transit the dominant carrier of workers.


Autonomous driving requires a lot of sensor inputs. My guess is that this and other camera inputs would be stored like a black box on a plane.
In case of an accident, the data can be review to determine if the autonomous nature of the vehicle caused (or should have avoided) the accident or if some other outside influence caused the accident.

Maybe the NTSB will expand to cover autonomous vehicles!

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