Who Will Pay When Self Driving Cars Crash

If you drive about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, you will arrive in Fontana. The San Bernardino County city is where a 35-year-old driver was recently killed when his Tesla Model 3 collided with an overturned tractor-trailer.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched an investigation to determine if the driver was using Tesla’s Autopilot or Full Self-Driving modes prior to the crash.

Finding fault

The NHTSA currently has 25 investigations of Tesla-involved crashes underway to determine why the incidents occurred. Were the motor vehicle crashes caused by Tesla drivers, other drivers, by Tesla’s driver assistance technology or by a combination of factors?

Insurance companies are also interested in finding out who was at fault for the wrecks, of course. As the tech in Teslas and other vehicles advances, insurers wonder who should pay when the vehicles crash.

When vehicles are truly self-driving, will crashes be the manufacturer’s responsibility – and will therefore be covered by product liability insurance – or will the individual vehicle owners be at fault and the crashes will be covered by personal car insurance?

The promise of autonomous vehicles

Self-driving vehicles are coming with the promise that they will usher in a new era of safety, fuel efficiency and improved traffic flow.

When a Tesla crashed in Texas in April, the immediate media focus was on the company’s driver assistance tech. CEO Elon Musk quickly responded, saying that the vehicle wasn’t equipped with Full Self-Driving mode and that its Autopilot mode had not been engaged at the time of the fatal wreck.

The NHSTA has investigated 34 crashes involving advanced driver assistance systems. Most of the probes involved Teslas, but vehicles from Volvo, Lexus, Cadillac and Navya (a French company testing self-driving shuttles) were included as well.

Insurance evolution

In a recent news article, a spokesperson for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association said insurance policies will evolve as cars become more autonomous. He said that drivers of vehicles equipped with advanced driver assistance systems are still “responsible for the overall operation,” so liability would be under a personal auto insurance policy.

The owner of a fully autonomous vehicle could still be on the financial hook for a crash if they hadn’t performed maintenance, such as software updates.

A spokesperson for Volvo said that when the company does roll out fully self-driving cars, it will accept full liability for those vehicles. We’ll have to wait and see if they stick to that promise.

Though questions about liability in crashes involving self-driving vehicles will have to be answered soon, they are in 2021 still hypothetical. The vast majority of crashes today are the result of driver error – and those drivers can be held accountable for the injuries and fatalities they cause.