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Who will be on the hook in a driverless vehicle crash?

Driverless vehicles will undoubtedly be a part of the not-so-distant future. In fact, while testing them in several states, some collisions have occurred -- one of which was fatal. However, with drivers in charge of non-autonomous vehicles, car accidents cause a significant percentage of overall reported deaths in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Many of these crashes involved alcohol. Can you imagine the number of lives that could have been saved if every impaired driver was not behind the wheel but in the back seat of a driverless car?

Who will be responsible for damages?

Technology promises an accident-free future with driverless vehicles, but they have some way to go -- and so does legislation to deal with these vehicles and any collisions they may cause. So far, the reported crashes involved semi-autonomous vehicles in autopilot mode that required the driver to be ready to take over if things go wrong. Whom will the law hold responsible for damages in such crashes? Will it be the vehicle owner, the occupant, the manufacturer or the programmer?

Could you blame the manufacturer?

According to Department of Transportation regulations, the computer -- and not the occupant -- is responsible for the operation of the car. Based on existing laws, there may be enough legal basis for you to hold a manufacturer responsible for injuries its product caused. Furthermore, along with the manufacturer, the designer, the programmer of the software, the retailer and the vehicle owner might potentially be defendants in a wrongful death or personal injury lawsuit.

For you, as a victim of a driverless car accident -- or as a family member of a loved one who died in such an accident -- the case may even change to a product liability lawsuit in which you can claim a design defect. Although monetary judgments in product liability cases are typically higher, they are much tougher to prove than negligence in a car accident. However, with autonomous vehicle accidents, establishing negligence will likely be even more of a challenge.

What about autopilot cases?

In a semi-autonomous vehicle, the occupant will remain responsible. His or her hands must be on the steering wheel, and he or she must focus on the manner in which the autopilot drives -- ready to take control when necessary. If such a car smashes into yours, there might be a joint liability. The driver, along with the manufacturer of the autopilot system could potentially face charges.

This is all still very new, and laws to regulate liability in driverless car accidents are evolving. Following such an accident, the most appropriate step for you to take might be to consult with an experienced vehicle accident attorney. A skilled professional can navigate the claim on your behalf and pursue recovery of damages.

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