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Accident Liability in Self-Driving Vehicles

There was a time when the idea of a self-driving automobile was reserved for science fiction books and films. Some readers may remember movies and television shows involving self-driving vehicles like Total Recall, I-Robot, and Knight Rider.

But as we have all seen, autonomous technology is no longer science fiction, appearing everywhere from online content creation to medical spaces. Since those shows and movies were produced, varying levels of self-driving technology have become a reality as well. In fact, the newer a person’s car, the more likely it possesses some of these innovations.

But even with these unique innovations, car accidents still occur. And that brings us to the legal topic of this blog post – are Oregon drivers relieved of liability for accidents when self-driving technology is present in a vehicle?

“Self-Driving” Technology Today

There are dozens of improvements to automobile development and tech that have cropped up over the years. Many assist with safety, or managing speed, or helping a driver mitigate a dangerous situation. However, self-driving technology is improving at a rapid pace. 

Technology that may be labeled “self-driving” is wide-ranging. For some people living in certain cities, like Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Phoenix, Waymo, the fully autonomous taxi service, has become a common sight. 

For many of us who drive, the technology in our cars is only partially autonomous. Instead, it is a form of driver assistance. For example, many vehicles offer systems with lane departure warnings that influence steering if the car starts to stray out of its lane, improving overall safety in theory. Manufacturers have also developed systems that allow drivers to drive while removing their hands from the steering wheel. This type of technology is a step closer to genuine “self-driving cars.” 

Why Are Manufacturers Pursuing Autonomous Driving Technology?

Manufacturers believe that these technologies can significantly improve safety. Waymo reports that 94% of automobile crashes in the United States involve human error. The company further claims it has reduced injuries and fatalities from traffic crashes.

Similarly, the online publication “here” cites a study finding that over the next 30 years, automated driving technologies could reduce traffic fatalities by 250,000. People hold high hopes that emerging technologies can help keep us safer.

Are Driver Assistance Technologies Fool Proof?

Of course not. Even manufacturers warn drivers of specific limitations and the importance of remaining alert, even when driver assistance technologies are engaged. Mechanical failure can also contribute to crashes.  It is essential that drivers read their owner’s manual and fully understand how this technology functions. It is also vital to understand the technological limitations of these systems while driving the car.

Self-Driving Cars and Oregon Motor Vehicle Law 

Self-driving cars are still a contentious legal topic in the state of Oregon. In 2018, Nigel Jaquiss of the Willamette Week published an article titled “Self-Driving Cars Are Coming. Oregon Isn’t Ready.” It discussed how Oregon lawmakers were fenced about how legality and liability should be tackled in the realm of self-driving cars. In 2016, a tractor-truck manufacturer located in North Portland tested out a self-driving truck on the I-84 – albeit with a driver on board for safety. 

In 2017, it was discussed by legislative councilmember Dexter Johnson that several Oregon statutes regarding motor vehicle legality and liability simply don’t apply to a fully automated ride. 

Oregon Department of Transportation and House Bill 4063

The Oregon Department of Transportation, or ODOT, is Oregon’s primary agency in coordinating policies and programs surrounding self-driving or autonomous vehicles. They were designated as such by House Bill 4063 in 2018. In that, a “Task Force on Autonomous Vehicles” was formed to report to local Oregon legislature with recommendations for any new laws that should be proposed to help govern the use of self-driving vehicles. However, that group was dissolved in 2021. 

So, Who’s Liable? 

Without clear-cut laws regarding liability in self-driving cars, determining liability is based upon principles of negligence law. The negligent driver can be held liable for damages to parties injured because of that negligence. Having helpful technology in the car does not relieve the driver of their duty to exercise due diligence while driving.

In Oregon, the car’s manufacturer, the human who turned on autopilot, or even the developer can be held liable for the crash. In some cases, all three may be found at fault. 

Call with Questions

In any motor vehicle crash, there are methods for determining liability, and certain rights that you may be entitled to. You will likely have questions about those rights, and the personal injury attorneys at Nelson MacNeil Rayfield are here to answer them with compassion, understanding, and decades of combined experience handling insurance companies.  Contact us today to set up your free consultation.