Uber mishap raises questions: Who's responsible if a self-driving car breaks the law?

Posted at 1:32 AM, Mar 21, 2018

The investigation into the Uber crash that killed a Phoenix homeless woman is still in its early stages.  

But preliminary reports from Tempe police show the victim, Elaine Herzberg, 49, was jaywalking when the self-driving car hit her on Mill Avenue near Curry Road Sunday night.

However, it raises an important question. Who is responsible if there is a law broken by one of these robotic vehicles?

Phoenix attorney James Arrowood studies driverless car technology and the law. He also teaches a course on driverless cars to other attorneys in for The State Bar of AZ.

He said, unfortunately, this was bound to happen because technology isn't foolproof.  

"The good news out of this particular tragedy is we will have more information than we have ever had in an auto accident," Arrowood said. "We'll have sensors and cameras (data)."

But when it comes to liability, Arrowood said Governor Doug Ducey's executive order requires driverless cars to follow the same rules of the road as any driver in Arizona, plus more.

"It specifies that if a company operates an autonomous vehicle, it has to comply with all of the traffic safety laws, in addition to extra parameters for autonomous vehicles," Arrowood said.

That means "no driver" does not mean "no fine."

"So if one of the (Uber) autonomous vehicles were to be speeding, then Uber would get a ticket for speeding," Arrowood said.

Arrowood says where it gets cloudy is the civil liability. 

Under normal circumstances in a traffic crash, a plaintiff could go after a driver, the carmaker and maybe a company like the tire manufacturer if there was a blowout, for example.

"You had a limited universe," Arrowood said. "Now with autonomous vehicles, we don't know how deep that universe goes. For instance, could the municipality, could the government have some responsibility for permitting those cars on the road or for not having sensors in place?"

Arrowood said although the Tempe crash is a tragedy, the public has to remember the technology isn't perfect or magical, and it's virtually impossible to avoid every collision. The goal is to reduce injuries and death.