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Liability Will Be a Concern as Florida Pushes Driverless Car Testing

Few states match Florida’s support of driverless car technology. In 2016, Florida became the first state to enact legislation that allows fully autonomous vehicles on its roads – without an operator even being behind the wheel. The state’s Department of Transportation also operates the Florida Autonomous Vehicle Initiative.

Of course, safety concerns fuel a lot of this support. As one Florida State University researcher notes, human error causes about “90 percent” of car crashes. “[S]ince computers never text while driving, never get sleepy, and never drive drunk, AVs are expected to drastically reduce the frequency and severity of traffic accidents,” the researcher says.

Florida’s economy also benefits from hosting companies that develop and test self-driving cars. For example, in early 2018, Ford made Miami-Dade County the “first large-scale test site of its self-driving vehicle fleet,” The Miami Herald reports.

No Court Has Determined Liability in an Autonomous Vehicle Crash

However, autonomous vehicles can still get into accidents. In March 2018, an Uber self-driving test car – in autonomous mode, with a human driver at the wheel – hit and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, Reuters reports. It is believed to be the country’s first fatal collision involving an autonomous car.

More crashes are bound to occur as auto manufacturers and technology firms continue to develop, test and tweak these vehicles in coming years. A key issue will be, “Who does a victim sue if a self-driving car causes a crash?”

The question remains largely unanswered. Fortune reports that every crash involving an autonomous vehicle, to date, has been resolved through a settlement. That includes the recent crash in Arizona, Reuters reports.

Florida Lawmakers Should Clarify Liability in Driverless Car Accidents

If an autonomous vehicle caused a crash that resulted in injury or death, a victim should be able to sue the owner and/or operator of the car if their negligence was to blame. However, what if a defect within the car contributed to the accident? Could you sue the car manufacturer? Would you sue the company that developed the driverless car technology?

Florida law provides some direction. Under Florida Statute 316.86, the original manufacturer of a car that is “converted by a third party into an autonomous vehicle” could not be held liable if that conversion or equipment installed in the vehicle caused the crash, “unless the alleged defect was present in the vehicle as originally manufactured.” So, under this law, it appears that liability would fall on the company that converted the car to an autonomous vehicle or the company that developed the driverless car technology – not the original auto manufacturer – if a defect involving the driverless car technology caused a crash.

However, as a defense, could one or both of those companies claim that they had met state and/or federal safety standards for driverless cars? Additionally, should these companies be required to carry certain minimum levels of insurance to cover any harm that others suffer in a collision with an autonomous vehicle? (Florida recently removed a provision that requires companies testing driverless cars to carry at least $5 million in insurance.) As Florida strives to be a leader in autonomous vehicle technology, our lawmakers will need to provide clear answers to these questions of liability and insurance coverage.

At Payer & Associates, our Miami personal injury attorneys will continue to keep a close watch on developments in autonomous vehicle technology and related legal developments in Florida, and we will be prepared to protect our clients’ rights.

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