California says Automakers should not be liable for Autonomous Vehicle Accidents

The NMA Foundation presents The Car of the Future weekly feature:

Last week, California regulators embraced a General Motors recommendation that automakers should not be liable for accidents and other trouble autonomous vehicle (AV) owners may face.

Basically, the state of California is saying that if you don’t maintain your car to manufacturer specs then you are out of luck in filing a lawsuit if your car is damaged in an accident, you and others involved in the accident are injured or the accident results in someone’s death.

Not only is this putting the liability on to owners, it will force motorists/passengers to subscribe to an autonomous ridesharing car service instead of actually owning an AV. Automakers are counting on this so they can continue to make money after the car is in a fleet.

This move follows the current direction of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal department responsible for federal regulations and compliance of AVs. Many experts agree that the new NHTSA AV guidelines are a decidedly laissez faire approach and the difference between the feds and the California guidelines—it places the onus of safety onto manufacturers. At the same time, the federal guidelines discourage states from introducing their own AV regulations.

Govtech.com said in a post this week that California is pushing the liability issue due to competition from other states. Currently, 43 companies (automakers, tech companies and lesser known start-ups) are testing AVs on California roads and streets but under current state regulations, companies must have a driver to take control when needed. Numerous companies plan to apply for fully driverless permits once the DMV finalizes its rules in 2018 which is a big change from the beginning of 2017, when there were warnings companies would test fully autonomous in other states with less regulations.

For example in late October, Waymo began testing driverless cars without drivers in Arizona. The race between states is indeed on! Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania are not far behind.

Vice President of the Association for California Insurance Companies, Armand Feliciano says that the California guidelines could indeed open a loophole that would allow automakers to skirt responsibility for accidents, injuries and deaths caused by AVs. Feliciano says the criteria for manufacturer specs could be as simple as under inflated tires or the need for an oil change.

Make no mistake, California is the bellwether state when it comes to state regulations (and perhaps Federal regulations) with regards to AVs. When the news was announced, Consumer Watchdog wrote a letter to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) which stated, “It is the result of the ongoing and troubling federal revolving door between the NHTSA and the auto industry.”

Consumer Attorneys of California, a professional association of trial lawyers, also came out against the recommendations. They wrote this statement to the DMV in late October, “This language creates a dangerous ‘moral hazard’ where manufacturers are encouraged to create unreasonable or impossible maintenance specifications to shift the burden onto (self-driving car) consumers or the public at large for technological failures.”

Consumer Watchdog and other insurance trade groups have threatened to sue if the current regulations are approved.

In April, the consumer safety group, Safe Autonomous Vehicles (SAVe) began campaigning carmakers to assume responsibility for the AVs they are now testing. Up to that time, no automaker had taken the pledge and they maintained that current liability laws were sufficient.

Perhaps times are changing. In October, Volvo said they would accept liability for AV car crashes. This week, Uber announced a $1B dollar purchase deal with Volvo which will provide up to 24,000 XC90s to be used in Uber’s new autonomous fleet. Uber hopes to launch AV ridesharing operations in 2019.

The auto industry is indeed at a cross roads as well as state and local governments when it comes to regulating AVs. Motorists have everything to lose in this scenario because no matter what government and companies decide, we still need to use vehicles, in whatever form they may come, for daily use.

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The NMA Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation.  The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions. 

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One Response to “California says Automakers should not be liable for Autonomous Vehicle Accidents”

  1. Joe Berino says:

    I enjoy reading the NMA stories and following the progress toward the
    implementation of Autonomous Vehicles. I hope and feel that there will
    always be a place for both A V and licensed drivers on our roads.

    What I haven’t heard much about and am really very curious is how
    Governments, state and local, are going to make up the loss in income they
    generate from tickets, DWI’s, etc. There will be no probable cause for the police
    to be able to pull anyone over when and A V is immune to running a red light or
    blowing a stop sign. No parking tickets when you can tell your car to pick you up
    in an hour or to go home and get you after work. Also, I’m wondering what the
    talk is in the insurance industry. At best there might be no insurance required or
    an maybe a flat fee. At worst?

    I’m interested to hear what others have to say.

    Joe Berino
    NMA Member