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Who or what is at fault in a self-driving car crash?

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Tragedy struck in Arizona last week when a self-driving Uber test-pilot car hit and killed a pedestrian. The accident resulted in the first death from an autonomous vehicle crash.

The car had a backup driver behind the wheel, but reports indicate that the late-night collision, which occurred away from a crosswalk, happened while the system was in full self-driving mode.

While officials investigate who or what may be at fault in this particular incident, questions of how liability will be appointed in self-driving accidents moving forward have quickly gathered very public attention.

"Maybe it’s part infrastructure, or maybe it was in the car design. Maybe it was the technology," San Francisco personal injury lawyer Eric Gruber told Circa.

Today's legal systems don’t have standards yet for how to handle accidents revolving around still-in-testing driverless car technology, but Gruber guesses, in the meantime, fault could end being split among companies and actors the way it is in today’s products liability.

"If you have an automatic door at a store and it slams onto somebody’s foot and breaks their foot, well the door wasn’t working right,. Was it the manufacturer? Did the owner not clean a sensor?" he explained.

"The plaintiff, the injured person, has the ability to recoup from any of those entities, and that’s kind of the situation I see here."

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The need for sorting out liability and who’s-at-risk standards for self-driving cars was the topic of one panel at the recent 2018 consumer electronics show. And experts there agreed that moving regulations officially away from the idea that there’s always going to be a human driver to blame could take a long time.

"What we’ll see in the first instance is that law won’t change immediately and won’t even change quickly," said AIG North America CEO Lex Baugh. "You’ll still be in a situation where the first action you’ll have will be against the operator of that vehicle even if that operator isn’t in control of that car. That will lead to subrogation activities against some of these other parties we're talking about, the law will evolve and we'll come to a different landing."

Since there are no one-size-fits all laws for driving accidents today – with some states being at-fault and others no-fault – it’s likely that liability rules written for self-driving cars across the country will also be a mixed bag.

So another prediction from experts is that autonomous vehicles systems would be able to record data and help determine liability from hardware, software, infrastructure, etc – like the black box of an airliner.

Of course, the ultimate goal of self-driving tech is to lower the amount of collisions on streets. And those associated with the industry, including personal injury lawyers like Gruber, still hope that’s what it will do the best.

"The idea is that you want it to put yourself out of business, eventually."

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