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It didn’t take long. A self-driving car was recently involved in a fatal car crash, killing it’s “driver” when it failed to respond to road conditions. The collision raises questions for auto insurance companies and could lead to changes in the way Third Party litigation works.
On May 7, 2016, Joshua Brown of Canton, Ohio, was killed when his Tesla Model S crashed into the back of a tractor-trailer. Brown was using the “Autopilot” mode of the vehicle, which meant the car was essentially driving itself.
Tesla’s Model S is equipped with a camera and radar that allows the vehicle to steer itself for a short period of time. Under some circumstances the car can even slow or stop itself. Even so, Tesla still warns drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel and remain alert.
The warning wasn’t enough to save Joshua Brown, though. Neither the vehicle nor its driver hit the brakes when a white semi truck turned out into the same lane.
This is the first known fatal accident involving a self-driving car. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are both investigating the incident.
This accident is getting commentators asking what autonomous vehicles mean for auto insurance companies. So far, the insurance companies haven’t adjusted their policies to accommodate for self-driving cars. They generally treat these accidents the same as any crash involving a normal driver.
The auto insurance industry can be slow to change its policies when circumstances would benefit motorists. They generally try to aggregate (or compile) large samples of data to estimate their costs and liabilities.
But that could pose a challenge when it comes to self-driving vehicles. These cars are being developed by software companies, which are used to releasing frequent updates, bug fixes, and refinements to correct errors discovered by users. So insurers trying to get a handle on the chance of an injury may find themselves chasing a moving target.
Auto accident law will likely change less here in Michigan, under no-fault insurance, than in other, negligence-based systems. However, self-driving vehicles that cause serious injury or wrongful death could still put a kink in Third Party litigation.
That’s because it will be up to the courts to decide who is liable when a self-driving car fails to avoid a collision: the driver, the other vehicle, or the software itself. In Third Party lawsuits, that could put insurance companies suing auto manufacturers themselves in products liability. As the automakers’ lawyers square off with the insurance industry, it will be up to plaintiffs’ lawyers to make sure the injured motorists don’t get lost in the middle.
David Christensen is an auto accident attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He represents the victims of car crashes against auto insurance companies. If you have been in a serious auto accident, contact Christensen Law for a free consultation.