Uber Self-Driving Cars, Liability, and Regulation

This week the first fatality involving a self-driving Uber car was reported in Tempe, Arizona.  As new autonomous technologies develop, offering us self-driving cars, trains, buses, and drone deliveries, what are the legal issues? And what regulation is needed? In the discussion that follows, Stanford Law School Professor Robert Rabin answers some of these questions.

What does the law say about responsibility for the tragic event in Tempe, Arizona, that left a woman dead after she was hit by an Uber car that was in autonomous mode? Who should be held responsible?

Early reports indicate that the autonomous vehicle (AV) struck a woman walking with her bicycle in the late evening, and that the AV was moving at about 40 MPH without slowing down. More detailed information on the facts would be needed to fully assess responsibility. But this much can be said generally: Under conventional tort law principles, if the safety driver failed to exercise reasonable care in avoiding the accident, Uber would be responsible for the driver’s negligence. If the automated features of the AV failed to note the presence of the victim, the manufacturer of the vehicle, as well as Uber, could be held responsible under product liability principles. If the victim was walking in the roadway and her presence was obscured by darkness at the late hour, she might be found partially at fault. At the extreme, if her conduct made the accident “unavoidable,” she might be fully responsible—but this seems unlikely.

Robert L. Rabin
Stanford Law School Professor Robert Rabin

We are at the beginning of this new autonomous technology.  Are regulators moving too quickly with this technology—allowing testing on real streets before safety concerns have been addressed?

The states vary considerably in regulatory oversight of AVs. Arizona has been among the most lenient in opening roadways to AV operation without establishing a strict testing protocol.

Could Arizona—or any state—be held at least partially liable in this kind of accident because of its minimal regulation?

It is possible that a state might be held partially responsible, but it really depends on the terms under which the traditional state immunity from tort responsibility has been lifted.

Are there any federal regulations for this new technology—or is it all state driven?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the federal agency with responsibility for motor vehicle safety. The agency has yet to establish detailed regulatory standards for AVs, which could conceivably preempt the current state patchwork; or, NHTSA might simply provide some baseline framework and leave the states relatively free to take their own approaches.

Is the federal government brought in to investigate crashes?

Yes, the National Safety Transportation Board has authority to investigate auto accidents, and it has already indicated it will be involved in developing a report on this accident.

Robert L. Rabin, A. Calder Mackay Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, is an expert on torts and legislative compensation schemes with extensive knowledge of the history and institutional dynamics of accident law.