Autonomous vehicles in Missouri: What happens if there’s an accident?

Investigating responsible parties for car accidents involving autonomous vehicles can be a difficult process.

Autonomous vehicles are gaining in popularity. Although data abounds on the safety of these vehicles, an accident draws national attention. When these accidents happen, a common question involves liability. Who is responsible for these car crashes?

In order to answer the question, it is important to have a basic understanding of the various levels of automation that are available in vehicles.

What types of automation are available within vehicles?

Vehicles generally fall within one of six levels of automation. The first three levels, designated zero through two, are categorized as human driver systems. These systems involve no automation with a zero rating, driver assistance with a one rating and partial automation with a two rating. This can include systems that aid the vehicle in staying within its lane and braking in the case of an emergency.

The step between level two and three involves a shift from a human driver performing the driving task to that of the automated driving system taking over the entire driving task. Essentially, this is the step when the vehicle actually takes control of the driving the process. A level three rating is the first step that has the ability to monitor the driving environment. Vehicles with this level of automation will not just brake if there is an emergency - they will review data about the nearby environment and decide whether it would be best to break or change lanes. A driver is still expected to monitor the vehicle at this level.

Level four does not require driver intervention. This level generally can only operate in designated areas, distinguishing it from a level five designation which can operate completely on its own in any location.

Autonomous vehicles and legislation: What are the laws?

A number of states have laws that aim to provide some level of regulation of these smart vehicles. Thus far, Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia as well as Washington D.C. currently have state laws in place that address autonomous vehicles.

Some of these laws, like those in Alabama, California, Louisiana and North Dakota either offer definitions of "autonomous vehicles" for legal purposes or call for further studies on the impact of these vehicles. Others, like those in Washington D.C., specifically outline expectations with the use of these vehicles. The law in Washington D.C. states that a human driver "must be prepared to take control of the autonomous vehicle at any moment" and touches on liability issues.

Although Missouri does not currently have a state specific piece of legislation specifically regarding these vehicles, such proposals are likely to move forward in the near future.

Smart cars and crashes: Where does liability fall?

It is not uncommon for car accidents to result in injuries that cost victims thousands in medical bills, lost wages and other costs. In a typical car crash, an investigation will likely delve into which driver was responsible for the accident. At that point, the victim can choose if he or she wants to hold the responsible party liable for these costs through a personal injury lawsuit.

However, the issue becomes more difficult when an autonomous vehicle is involved. An investigation must also take into account the carmakers and software designers.

What should a victim do if he or she is injured in an accident involving an autonomous vehicle?

Due to the novel nature of these accidents, it is wise for victims to seek legal counsel. An attorney can review precedent cases from throughout the country and develop a legal strategy that will better ensure your interests are protected.