As Autonomous Vehicle use Rises, Who is at Fault for Crashes?

Autonomous vehicles are making their presence felt on the road, especially in cities like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There is some debate around whether self-driving cars will make the roads safer or just create additional hazards on the road. At least two fatal crashes involving autonomous vehicles received news coverage in 2018, bringing up the question as to who is responsible in a crash involving an autonomous vehicle and what legal recourse those injured may have.

Cities Where Autonomous Vehicles Can Be Found

According to an article in Popular Science, there are certain major cities where autonomous vehicles are becoming a more and more common sight. The self-driving car company Waymo is focused on Arizona, primarily in Chandler, Mesa, Tempe, and Gilbert; as is Nuro, which is operating in Scottsdale. Ford is also in the autonomous vehicle game, with cars in major cities including Pittsburgh, Miami, D.C., and (of course) Dearborn. Cruise has operational vehicles in Orion, Michigan as well as Scottsdale, Arizona and San Francisco, California. is in Texas, primarily in Arlington and Frisco, while Uber’s autonomous vehicles are active in Pittsburgh. Aurora also has vehicles on the road in Pittsburgh as well as San Francisco and Palo Alto. Aptiv is also active in Pittsburgh, along with Boston and Las Vegas.

Recent Autonomous Vehicle Crashes

Uber app

You might remember the incident in 2018 where a pedestrian was struck and killed at night by an Uber self-driving vehicle. Elaine Herzberg was crossing the road with her bicycle at night when she was hit by the automobile. The safety driver in the car, who was supposed to take over as needed, also did not see Ms. Herzberg in time, thus the attempt at swerving was not quick enough to avoid impact.

As of March of 2019, prosecutors in Arizona stated that they could find no reason to file criminal charges against Uber but hinted that the safety driver may be the one at fault, pending what may be uncovered as the investigation continues. The family of Ms. Herzberg has resolved a case against Uber, but no details about the settlement are available at this time.

That was not the only self-driving crash that resulted in fatality during 2018, however. Walter Huang’s Tesla Model X SUV was in autopilot mode when the car inexplicably sped up and struck a safety barrier. He was killed, and his family sued Tesla for wrongful death and negligence due to the faulty Autopilot system, which the company had promised was safe.

Advanced Driver Assistance Systems

Tesla car

There is one thing both of these accidents have in common: ADAS, or Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, which require the presence of a human in the car. Cars equipped with ADAS still require the presence of a safety driver or a human ready to intervene should something go wrong.

Most people blame accidents involving ADAS-equipped vehicles squarely on the shoulders of the safety driver. There is also the issue of potential product liability claims related to how well the manufacturer of the ADAS made it clear that the safety driver is responsible for paying attention to the road in case an intervention is needed.

A False Sense of Security

hands on steering wheel

In the Tempe case, the safety driver was discovered to have been watching a show on an electronic device when Ms. Herzberg was struck and killed, although there is still question as to whether the safety driver could have prevented the crash given conditions that night–even if he or she had been closely watching. In the case involving Mr. Huang, the family stated that he had overestimated the independence of the ADAS and, with that false sense of security, did not pay careful attention to the road.

Who Is Responsible?

If you are struck by an ADAS autonomous car, both the safety driver and either the tech firm behind the autonomous system or the automaker may be liable. If the safety driver was not paying attention (which sadly seems to be very common), then legally they may be responsible for what happened if it can be demonstrated that they could have prevented it. The tech firm or automaker could be responsible if it can be proven that the crash was the result of a design flaw or lack of warnings reminding the safety driver of their responsibility.


A car equipped with autonomous technology does not necessarily make it safer than a traditional car. Misunderstanding of the limitations of autonomous vehicles, especially those using ADAS, can actually make them more dangerous. If you are injured in an accident involving such a vehicle, keep in mind that the safety driver as well as the manufacturer may be held responsible. Regardless, it is wise for all drivers, even safety drivers in autonomous vehicles, to stay alert and pay attention when driving – failure to do so can be fatal.

Contact Donaghue & Labrum

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident involving an autonomous vehicle, whether you were the driver, a passenger, or an external party, you would be wise to seek legal help — how courts handle such cases is still developing, just as the technology is still maturing. Contact the skilled personal injury lawyers at Donaghue & Labrum to find out what your options are, and give us an opportunity to aggressively represent you both in court and out. With decades of experience in personal injury practice, we will fight to get you the compensation that the law says you deserve.