It is no longer science fiction, self-driving cars (also known as “autonomous vehicles”) are here. The unfortunate and tragic consequence of the arrival of this technology is that accidents involving self-driving cars are on the rise.

Recently, on May 4, 2018 (while many Star Wars fans were telling their friends and relatives “May the fourth be with you,”) a self-driving minivan operated by Google’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, was involved in a multivehicle crash in Chandler, Arizona. While there is currently debate as to whether the vehicle in the Chandler crash was in “autonomous mode” at the time of the collision, the debate does little to assuage public concern, particularly when less than two-months have passes since the first fatality involving a self-driving vehicle and a pedestrian occurred on March 18, 2018 in Tempe, Arizona. In another incident less than a week later on March 23, Tesla has recently revealed that its Autopilot feature was turned on when a Model X SUV collided with a concrete highway divider bursting into flames and killing its driver. These recent tragic events simply add to the growing list of fatalities that began on May 7, 2016, when the driver of a Tesla S70D was killed when his vehicle, operating under autonomous controls collided with a stopped semi-truck and trailer.

Over the last decade, self-driving vehicles and other autonomous systems have been a developing technology. In March 2016, twenty automakers agreed with regulators to make automatic emergency braking a standard feature on most U.S. vehicles by 2022. Despite the flaws in these autonomous systems, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded, following its investigation of the Florida fatality involving the Tesla S70D, that crashes involving Telsa vehicles have dropped by 40 percent in vehicles operating in autonomous mode.

The legal issues that arise from this growing technology are as varied as the systems themselves. While plans are on the horizon for vehicles that are fully autonomous, current systems such as Tesla’s autopilot require constant driver intervention. Although there have been no reported court decisions involving liability for injuries sustained in accidents involving self-driving cars, the landscape for liability will certainly shift from driver liability to manufacturer liability, under a products liability theory, or – at a minimum – shared liability.

Currently, the only legislation in the State of Illinois regulating autonomous vehicles is Public Act 100-0352, which mandates that no unit of local government, including a home rule unit, may enact an ordinance prohibiting the use of autonomous vehicles on its roadways. Under current statutes, a “driver” is defined as every “person who drives or is in actual physical control of a vehicle.” (625 ILCS 5/1-116). However, under the Illinois Vehicle Code, the definition of “person” includes every “natural person, firm, copartnership, association or corporation.” These definitions invariably will open the door to liability against manufactures that operate or contribute to the operation of self-driving cars. Still, it is clear that further legislation and regulation is needed.

Many questions remain unanswered as this new technology is developed, tested, and rolled out on public streets and highways. How will insurers handle coverage in multivehicle accidents involving self-driving vehicles? What steps will manufacturers take to try to avoid liability? How can consumers and the public protect against the dangers inherent in these automated systems? How will autonomous systems handle a decision between protecting the safety of its passengers by avoiding an object such as a tree or vehicle versus swerving and hitting a pedestrian? What theories of liability will be available, negligence, product liability, consumer fraud, common-law fraud, negligent misrepresentation…?

Regardless of how the landscape unfolds in this new area of law, Huner Law Offices, LLC is prepared to bring over 20 years of experience in handling personal injury cases to any issues that arise, and will work tirelessly to achieve the best outcome for our clients.