Most motor vehicle accidents stem from driver error. Yet, assigning fault in collisions involving autonomous vehicles is not so easy. While operators often face fault, their liability can depend on whether they exhibited negligence or not. And on occasion, system errors may also be at play.

Driver negligence

Currently, the United States recognizes six stages of vehicle autonomy, ranging from no automation to full automation. Most autonomous vehicles sit between the two, and still require significant driver assistance. Yet, some drivers do not understand their vehicles’ limitations. And others have enough confidence in their cars to watch movies or play video games behind the wheel. If an operator causes an accident while misusing autonomous systems, they may face liability.

Manufacturer error

Yet, some crashes involving autonomous vehicles stem from system issues. Many autonomous vehicles rely on new technologies that, while tested, remain relatively unproven. Given this fact, drivers must recognize the chance for error. And they must acknowledge, too, that autonomous systems do not work in every situation. If a driver ignores an alert to take control, then they may still shoulder fault for the accident. But a vehicle may experience a sudden glitch, or its sensors or cameras could fail to detect a hazard. If the operator did not use the vehicle’s systems to replace driving’s human element, the manufacturer may hold responsibility instead.

California has laws governing autonomous vehicle use. But these statutes mainly apply to testing and do not cover accident liability for partly automated vehicles. Yet, partly automated vehicles still allow drivers to take a passive role in operation. Thus, assigning fault in a crash can become complex. Regulations will change as automated technologies appear in more new cars each year. Until they become clearer, it’s important to know the differences between driver mistake and vehicle error.