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Volvo, Ford and other car makers have said they will accept “full liability” in the future when a car crashes in autonomous mode, because the technology will be that good. An accident involving a fully autonomous vehicle, with or without a driver behind the wheel, will then be an issue of product liability, assuming the owner of the vehicle has followed proper maintenance. Until full autonomy is achieved, both car maker and vehicle owner will share liability.

In May 2013, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a “Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles,” that included the following set of definitions regarding levels of vehicle automation.

Level 0: No-Automation

The driver is in complete control of the primary vehicle controls (brake, steering, throttle, and motive power) at all times, and is solely responsible for monitoring the roadway and for safe operation of all vehicle controls.

Level 1: Function-specific Automation

The driver has overall control, and is solely responsible for safe operation, but can choose to cede limited authority over a primary control, the vehicle can automatically assume limited authority over a primary control, or the automated system can provide added control to aid the driver in certain normal driving or crash-imminent situations.

Level 2: Combined Function Automation

The driver is still responsible for monitoring the roadway and safe operation and is expected to be available for control at all times and on short notice with no advance warning.

Level 3: Limited Self-Driving Automation

The driver can cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time.

Level 4: Full Self-Driving Automation

The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. The vehicle may be occupied or un-occupied. By design, safe operation rests solely on the automated vehicle system.

Vehicle Autonomy Continues to Evolve

Vehicle automation has been evolving for quite some time. In 1958, Chryslers and Imperials featured “Auto-Pilot,” designed to help drivers maintain a constant speed and warn drivers of excessive speed.  Anti-lock brakes first became available in 1970s, and Electronic stability control (ESC), introduced in the mid-1990s, became mandatory in the United States in 2011 for newly manufactured light vehicles.

In recent years, more advanced technologies called “driver assists” have become more common. Some higher-end vehicles include automated braking systems, such as Volvo’s City Safety system designed to reduce the likelihood of “forward” collisions. The next several years should see more commercially available advanced systems, some with improved solutions for automatically keeping cars from drifting across lane lines.

Self-Driving Vehicle Liability Shifts to Car Makers

As the technology continues to evolve, giving more and more control to vehicles and less to drivers, liability risk will fall more to auto makers than owners. There may be fewer accidents with safer technology, but accidents that do occur will be more complex from a legal standpoint, requiring evaluation of technology involved. Monetary damages awards will also be greater from car makers than drivers.

The legal precedents established over the last half century of products liability litigation will provide manufacturers of autonomous vehicle technology with a strong set of incentives to make their products as safe as possible.