As vehicles become increasingly automated, questions of who is responsible when something goes awry are testing the legal system. Typically, drivers and carmakers are held liable in civil court. However, the stakes can be much higher.
In Los Angeles County, prosecutors have charged a man with vehicular homicide for a crash nearly two years ago. The 27-year-old defendant was driving a Tesla Model S, set on Autopilot, when the car ran a red light and hit another vehicle. The two people in the other car died at the scene.
The driver has pleaded not guilty and was released on bail. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is still investigating the crash. Families of both victims are suing the driver as well as Tesla. This case is believed to be the first time someone in the U.S. has been charged with a felony for a crash involving a vehicle with an automated system.
When vehicles aren’t fully autonomous, is the driver responsible?
Fully autonomous vehicles aren’t legal on the road unless they’re being used exclusively for testing. However, the names of some of the driver-assist systems that are in place (such as Autopilot) can lead drivers to believe their vehicle is self-driving, according to a professor who studies self-driving cars.
In reality, what they have is a Level 2 system. The responsibility – and culpability – of drivers with this type of automated driving system is still a matter of some debate. However, according to a spokesperson for NHTSA, a vehicle in which this system is activated still “requires the human driver to be in control at all times, and all state laws hold the human driver responsible for the operation of their vehicles.”
As the professor notes, however, this case is “a wake-up call for drivers” not to “forget about the fact that we’re the ones that are responsible — not only for our own safety but for the safety of others.”
It remains to be seen what will happen with this case and with others that may follow it. All of us, even if we don’t drive vehicles that are supposed to provide this much autonomous technology, depend on them to operate in a certain way. When they don’t, and someone is harmed, can a driver face criminal charges? If you find yourself in this situation, it’s crucial to seek experienced legal guidance.