Autonomous car accidents: parallel France USA
Self-driving car crashes in the US
The example of the United States, a world pioneer in experimenting with autonomous cars, could fuel the reflection of legislators in other countries on the legal framework for accidents involving a self-driving car.
To date, three accidents have occurred in the United States during the experimentation of autonomous cars in real traffic conditions.
The first accident, involving a Google car (Google Lexus SUV), took place on February 14, 2016 in Mountain View, California. Alphabet. Google’s parent company immediately admitted responsibility for the accident (1).
For his part, during his investigation, NHTSA (2) called Google’s autonomous system the “driver” of the self-driving car. It could then be potentially responsible for the accident. This is a first upheaval in the traditional liability regime for road accidents.
A fortiori, were exonerated from any liability:
- the driver, natural person sitting on the driver’s seat, contenting himself with a passive role when driving the vehicle in autonomous mode, or even
- the car manufacturer whose vehicle was transformed into an autonomous car after the integration of the autonomous system.
The second accident took place on May 7, 2016 in Williston, Florida, involving a Tesla car (Model S). It’s about first fatal accident of a self-driving car. In this case, the man seated at the wheel of the Tesla, which was traveling in autopilot mode, died following the collision with a truck.
According to the NHTSA survey, Tesla’s autopilot not found responsible for crash (3).
Finally, more recently, on March 25, 2017, an Uber self-driving car (a Volvo XC90 SUV) was involved in an accident in Tempe, Arizona without causing any casualties. To date, the local police report does not question the self-driving system of Uber (4).
The review of US laws sheds light on the liability regime in the event of accidents involving self-driving cars.
Liability regime in the United States
According to the first American laws on autonomous cars, in particular those of the district of columbia and Florida States and Nevadathe automobile manufacturer is exempt from its responsibility in case of failure of the autonomous systemunless he installed it directly on the vehicle or if the damage was caused by a failure of the vehicle independent of the autonomous technology (5).
Thus, the responsibility of the car manufacturer is dismissed in favor of that of the manufacturer of the autonomous driving system.
In addition, the American legislator has managed the insurance aspect by imposing on companies carrying out tests of autonomous cars an insurance policy and a guarantee amounting to $5 million.
What does French law say?
Under the current French regime, compensation for road accidents burdens the driver of the car (6).
However, this regime does not seem suitable for accidents involving autonomous cars insofar as the driver no longer has direct vehicle control (7). Likewise, if the accident takes place during periods of control of the car by a driving assistance system (8).
In addition, experimentation on public roads and the commercial exploitation of self-driving cars can be the source of material damage and bodily injury. The following liability regimes could be applicable to companies that experiment with or operate self-driving cars:
- civil liability (some possible foundations: civil liability for fault, liability for the fact of things, liability of the principal for the act of his employees);
- liability for defective products from the car manufacturer or the manufacturer of the autonomous technology.
Furthermore, the compensation scheme of the Badinter law of 1985 on traffic accidents could apply to the driver of the self-driving car if the accident took place while he had control of the vehicle.
Pending the definition of a French regulatory framework specific to autonomous cars, the guidelines of American laws could be taken into consideration. They will probably serve as a reference for the French legislator.
Self-driving car accident risk management
To limit the liability risks of companies that test and/or operate self-driving cars, it is recommended to:
- set up a system for checking and regular maintenance autonomous cars, from a hardware but also software point of view, through the subscription of maintenance contracts with specialized companies;
- keep proof of the precautions and maintenance measures carried out in order, in the event of damage caused to a user, to be able to prove the absence of a maintenance defect (maintenance visit report from the companies in charge of maintenance, data collected via the OBD socket (9) of the vehicle, etc.);
- keep proof of the data collected the last 30 seconds before the accident of the road by the “black box” of the car. This would allow in the event of offenses or accidents of autonomous cars, to be able, if necessary, to release its responsibility.
In addition, in the absence of a specific regulatory framework, the contracts negotiated between the various actors involved in the experimentation and operation of autonomous cars will necessarily have to distribute between them the risk of compensation in the event of an accident and, therefore, that of the burden of the possible reparation debt.
(1) Karissa Bell, “ Google says it bears some responsibility for first accident caused by self-driving car”, Mashable.com 29 02 2016
(2) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This is the US federal agency in charge of establishing the rules governing the use of roads.
(3) NHTSA, Office of Defects Investigation PE-16-007 closed on January, 19 2017 on Tesla Motors, Inc automatic vehicle control systems.
(4) Danielle Muoio, “Police: The self-driving Uber in the Arizona crash was hit crossing an intersection on yellow”, Business Insider, 30 03 2017
(5) For example, mechanical problem, brake failure, etc.
(6) Law No. 85-677 of July 5, 1985 aimed at improving the situation of victims of traffic accidents and accelerating compensation procedures, known as the “Badinter law”.
(7) A. Bensoussan, J. Bensoussan, Minilex “Robot Law”, chapter 7, Larcier edition 2015.
(8) For example when switching on the cruise control etc.
(9) On Board Diagnostics (OBD) socket. The OBD socket makes it possible in particular to retrieve information from sensors in order to check the condition of the car and any malfunctions at any time.