Self-driving cars have become a frequent sight on the roads of Phoenix. This is not a coincidence. According to Wired, autonomous technology companies are being drawn to Arizona by a host of factors. Good weather makes it easier to develop new autonomous technologies, which sometimes struggle to view traffic in the midst of rain or snow. Traffic is more predictable than in more crowded metropolitan areas, and technical road conditions are better than in areas with heavy rain or salted winter roads. These, too, are conditions which make it easier to bring autonomous technology out of early development phases. But in spite of these advantages for manufacturers, self-driving cars in Arizona will raise many novel questions of law regarding accident liability and collision rates. And of course safety concerns take priority over the legal concerns.

Why Fears of Self-Driving Car Accidents Are Misplaced

Opponents of self-driving cars have expressed many safety concerns about self-driving cars. Such fears seemed to be validated when a self-driving Uber vehicle crashed in Tempe, Arizona on March 24, 2017. According to Wired, the autonomous Uber vehicle was approaching an intersection when the light changed from green to yellow. When the light changed to yellow, a driver in the opposite direction made a left turn across oncoming traffic, while at the same time the Uber accelerated. The two vehicles collided in the intersection.

But was this accident the fault of the self-driving vehicle? The Arizona left-turn statute (A.R.S. 28-722) is clear: a vehicle turning left must yield to any oncoming vehicle. If a vehicle accident involved any left turn, the driver attempting the turn is at fault for the accident. In the case of the autonomous Uber, the left-turning driver was legally at fault. Of course, the fact that the self-driving Uber was not legally responsible for the Arizona accident does not allay public safety concerns. But it is important to remember that this vehicle did exactly what it was supposed to do. The facts of this accident do not uncover any new or disturbing information about self-driving technology. On the contrary, they demonstrate that the technology works exactly as it is supposed to.

Who is Legally Responsible for a Self-Driving Car Accident?

Legal responsibility (“liability”) for a car accident is an important question with many consequences. It determines whose insurance company pays for injuries sustained in the accident. It can determine which driver receives a traffic citation for the accident. It can even result in criminal charges (as is the case for impaired driving). Unfortunately, the question of liability for self-driving car accidents is so new that it does not yet have a definite answer. There are many potential outcomes. A strict technical interpretation of Arizona’s traffic statutes will allow a determination of which driver was at fault for causing the accident. However, that does not clarify whether the autonomous vehicle must carry liability insurance which pays for injuries resulting from an accident caused by the self-driving car. Some accidents may also be the result of defect in the autonomous technology. In such a case, the vehicle manufacturer could be liable for the accident and resulting injuries.

After any Arizona traffic collision, injury victims have legal rights which must be defended by an experienced car accident attorney. It is especially important to have experienced legal counsel when novel issues of law are raised by accidents involving autonomous vehicles.