Why Determining Liability in Self-Driving Car Accidents Is Tricky


Car accidents are stressful enough when two drivers are trying to determine who caused the accident. Adding insurance companies into the mix makes it even more strenuous.

When it comes to self-driving car accidents, it’s challenging to find out who’s liable for a car accident. There are many factors to take into consideration.

Self-Driving Accidents vs. Standard Auto Accidents

Most car accidents happen due to human error, like not paying attention to the car in the next lane, trying to turn on a light before it’s red, or looking at your phone instead of the road.

While some driver assistance technologies, like backup cameras, cruise control, and blind-spot detection, can ensure drivers stay aware of their surroundings, some technology isn’t as helpful.

Self-driving cars still have a person in the driver’s seat, but they’re not in control as much as they would in a standard vehicle.

Levels of Automation

The Society of Automotive Engineers outlined automation levels for a vehicle as such:

  • Level 0: No automation
  • Level 1: Minor automation, like power brakes and steering
  • Level 2: Partial automation, like cruise control
  • Level 3: Vehicle can operate without driver control but needs attention
  • Level 4: Vehicle operates without driver intervention
  • Level 5: Fully-automated vehicle that doesn’t have a gas pedal or steering wheel

Tesla vehicles have autopilot packages that can control your vehicle’s speed and keep it in the lane without assistance. Enhanced autopilot controls your car on the highway off-ramps, changes lanes, and parks. 

However, the vehicles aren’t yet autonomous, so there’s always a person in the driver’s seat.

Who Is Liable for a Self-Driving Car Accident?

If the vehicle controls itself, even with a person inside, you have to wonder who is liable for the self-driving car accident. 

When you have a car wreck with two drivers in complete control of their vehicles, you determine fault by assessing who turned in front of who or who changed lanes without looking. But if the car is in control, you need to prove liability differently.

Manufacturer Liability

The manufacturer can be liable for accidents even when a driver controls the vehicle. If they didn’t correctly install the brakes or steering wheel, you could argue that the manufacturer caused a wreck.

Self-driving cars use automation software, so these designers can also be liable for accidents. As with the manufacturer, the coders are responsible for the vehicle’s basic sensors. If the wreck happens because the technology malfunctions, you can sue the software company, too.

Personal Liability

The driver at fault is always liable in an accident. All states require that a person is in the driver’s seat, even if they’re not steering or pressing the gas pedal. They still need to stay alert to take control if the car does something unexpected.

If the vehicle’s sensors fail and the driver doesn’t take over, the driver is liable because they must stay aware while on the road.

What to Do After a Self-Driving Accident

There are different state laws regarding self-driving cars, but they’re not flat-out illegal anywhere. If you get into an accident with a self-driving vehicle, follow the same protocol for any other wreck, including:

  • Calling the police to report the accident
  • Getting the driver’s personal and insurance information
  • Take pictures of the damage
  • File an insurance claim

Once you file your claim, you’ll progress with determining who’s at fault. You can get information about the make and model of the self-driving vehicle and research the manufacturer and software designer. A competent car accident attorney can help you bring a case against everyone at fault in the wreck.


As self-driving cars become more efficient, the need for driver insurance may decrease as manufacturers, and software designers assume liability. However, knowing what to do after you get in an accident with a self-driving car is crucial. Contacting an experienced lawyer can help you bring a case against the driver and car manufacturer.


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