Who is liable when a driverless car crashes? This has been a question at the forefront of the minds of tech futurists and legal enthusiasts alike for years now as the budding industry for ‘self-driving’ cars has begun to blossom. The debate is about to heat up, however, after it emerged last week that a man has died at the wheel of a Tesla Model S electric sedan in what is believed to be the first ever fatal crash involving a self-driving car.
Federal investigators have opened formal investigations into the death of Ohio man Joshua Brown, who was killed in a car accident involving a Tesla Model S in Florida on 7 May. According to a statement from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Mr Brown was killed when a tractor-trailer vehicle made a sharp left turn in front of the Tesla and the car, which was in self-driving mode, failed to brake. Tesla has so far avoided the sticky question of whether the accident might have been avoided had Mr Brown been driving the car himself – and by extension, whether Tesla’s technology is at fault: ‘Neither autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied,’ said a statement from the company.
Regulatory stumbling block
The debate around liability has been picking up pace this year after a landmark decision from the NHTSA in February gave Google’s own self-driving software the same legal status as a human driver. The decision was invited by Google in an effort to boost regulatory clarity as it moves ahead in designing fully autonomous vehicles. Shortly afterwards, carmaker Volvo announced that it would also accept full liability for accidents involving its own driverless cars, so long as the accident was the result of a flaw in the car’s design. Both companies are hoping to speed up efforts to standardise regulation around the burgeoning industry by simplifying the tricky legal and ethical questions thrown up by the prospect of ‘driverless’ crashes, for which there is still very little consensus.