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Determining liability in accidents involving self-driving cars

Autonomous vehicles have long been a popular staple for science fiction writers, but they may soon become a presence on California roads. Some luxury cars are already available with semiautonomous driving systems, and several car makers and technology companies are developing vehicles that will require no input from the driver at all other than a destination address.

Studies show that the vast majority of motor vehicle accidents involve some form of human error, but a small percentage are caused by other factors such as mechanical failure. Determining liability for accidents involving self-driving cars could be an impediment to the technology being adopted, and car companies such as Mercedes-Benz and Volvo have joined Google in stating that they will accept liability if one of their autonomous vehicles causes an accident.

As with most emerging technologies, the companies that are able to bring a product to market early will have a significant advantage, and some experts feel that shortcuts could be taken in the race to bring the first fully autonomous vehicle to showrooms. Initial problems with the technology include sporadic functioning in inclement weather and difficulties recognizing hand signals from other road users. Auto industry leaders say that thorough testing is the key to developing software that will work as intended in grueling real world driving situations, but only California, Nevada, Michigan and Florida have so far passed laws that allow this testing to be conducted on public roads.

Attorneys representing car accident victims will often conduct thorough investigations into the causes of the incidents to determine liability and identify negligent behavior. They may also seek to have vehicle data recorders and other sophisticated technological systems examined when mechanical failure is suspected. Such investigations could lead in the future to litigation being initiated on behalf of accident victims against autonomous vehicle manufacturers.

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