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Assigning blame after an accident in a self-driving car

The future of transportation in America seems to be autonomous (self-driving) vehicles. And entrepreneurs in California are taking the lead on developing the technology to make self-driving cars possible and reliable.

If and when computers replace human drivers, we could see a major reduction in car accidents, injuries and fatalities. But during the transition from human-driven to computer-driven cars, crashes will continue to occur, and will lead to tricky questions about responsibility and liability for accidents.

About 18 months ago, a man in Florida became the first person to die in crash while a vehicle was driving itself. Accident reports reveal that the man had his Tesla in "Autopilot" mode when it T-boned a truck turning left across oncoming traffic. The accident occurred on four-lane highway with no median.

Various agencies have conducted investigations into the crash and have reached varying conclusions about who was at fault. Originally, it appeared as though the Tesla owner was solely or primarily to blame because he was using the Autopilot feature in ways that it was not intended to be used. More specifically, he did not remain alert and ready to resume control while Autopilot was engaged. Despite its name, Autopilot is really more of a driver-assistance feature than a driver-replacement one.

The National Transportation Safety Board agreed that the Tesla driver was partially at fault for the crash. But in a report issued this month, the NTSB also blamed both Tesla and the driver of the truck that was hit.

Tesla was to blame, the report said, because it had not put sufficient processes in place to require drivers to remain attentive when Autopilot is primarily in control. The board also blamed the truck driver for failing to yield the right of way before making his turn.

While it is common to have shared liability for a car accident, this case shows how complicated things can be when one of the at-fault parties is computer software (and the company that designed it). There will almost certainly be more cases like this one in the news as America moves toward the wider adoption of self-driving technology.

In the meantime, if you have been injured in a car accident due to the negligence of another person, please contact an experienced personal injury attorney in your area.

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