Who’s behind the wheel of self-driving cars?

May 7, 2016 marks a tragic day in history. The day the first person died as a result of a car accident involving a self-driving car – Joshua Brown, a former Navy Seal from Canton, Ohio. Tesla’s Autopilot system controls the car with radar and cameras that scan the road. This technology is designed to keep cars within lanes, while it brakes, accelerates, and passes other vehicles automatically. This technology, however, failed to recognize the tractor-trailer that came out of a road intersecting with Joshua Brown’s Tesla Model S. According to Tesla’s public statement, “what we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor-trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the drive noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”

It was determined the Tesla’s Autopilot system was not at fault, per an investigation conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Specifically, the Autopilot system was not intended to handle traffic situation where vehicles crossed intersecting roadways. According to the agency, Brown was responsible for the crash – i.e., if he were paying attention he would have seen the truck crossing and had time to avoid the collision.

This technology is quickly evolving. Many car companies are working on developing fully automated cars – in fact, Google’s prototype doesn’t even have a steering wheel.

“The law”, on the other hand, evolves and changes very slowly.

Per the current law, human drivers have the responsibility to drive and control their cars. With fully automated self-driving cars closer than we think on the horizon, how will the law change? If the driver is not the responsible party, then who is – the car manufacturer? The car’s software company? Possibly a business that uses self-driving cars to transport passengers or workers? Too many questions at this point. It just really doesn’t make much sense to place either criminal or civil liability on the human driver (really aren’t we all just passengers at that point) in a self-driving vehicle, if the self-driving system is what caused the accident…right?

The laws will undoubtedly need to change in this area. As the law currently sits and practically speaking, civil actions will become too costly for injured people to pursue – given the multitude of potential defendants and the need for highly qualified experts to establish various liability issues.

Time will tell how state law will change to handle this technology – it has to.