Perhaps one day autonomous vehicle technology will be so advanced that we will be able to take a nap or read a book while our car takes us safely along highways and Costa Mesa streets. Despite all the recent advances, we're still a long way off from that day.
For now, the cars allowed on California roadways are, at most, semi-autonomous. They must have a human driver present and attentive, watching the road and ready to hit the brakes or grab the steering wheel in case the vehicle's sensors miss something.
This situation raises some troubling legal questions. Among them: "Who can be held liable when someone is injured in a crash involving an autonomous vehicle?"
Most personal injury cases involving car accidents are based on the legal concept of negligence. Drivers owe a duty of care to others on the road. When they breach that duty by causing an accident that hurts someone else, they are said to have acted with negligence. The injured can hold the negligent driver liable for their damages, including medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering.
However, there are also cases involving automobiles where the legal theory of product liability can hold vehicle makers accountable when their defective products injure someone.
So far, the law has not come up with a consistent way of dealing with the question of liability in semi-autonomous vehicle accidents. If the accident is caused by a defect in the car itself, then the automaker should be held liable. But what if the accident was caused by a human driver who was distracted, and failed to hit the brakes when the car's technology failed to do so? In this situation, is the human driver 100% liable, or does the automaker share some of the liability because the technology failed?
For now, these questions will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
For the injured and their families, the most important thing is that they have the ability to recover compensation for their damages so that they can cope with the aftermath of an accident. An experienced personal injury attorney can help the injured understand how the law will apply to the unique facts of their case, even when the facts involved are in almost uncharted territory.