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Who's to blame if a self-driving car crashes: human or machine?

In today's post, we'd like to once more address the topic of self-driving cars, more specifically the one currently being tested by Google at its Mountain View, California headquarters. As some of our more frequent readers may have noticed, we've hinted previously at a very important legal issue concerning self-driving cars but have never really gone in depth into the issue.

Today, we'd like to do just that though and talk about liability and self-driving cars. As you've probably already realized, self-driving cars, like the one driven by Google's engineers, present a unique legal question to lawmakers across the nation, including here in California. The question is this: who's to blame if no one is driving the vehicle?

As you may or may not know, a self-driving car relies on an intricate and sophisticated system of sensors to help it navigate safely through our world. As we explained last month in another blog post though, these vehicles still get into accidents. While Google insists that all of the crashes its vehicle has been involved in were due to human error and not the fault of the system, one can't help but wonder when this will no longer be the case.

If you've ever had your computer crash then you know that technology isn't always perfect. The same could be true for the Google car as well which, over time, might develop system problems that could cause the car to malfunction. The car could easily crash, begging the question: who is liable for damages?

In a situation such as this, it's likely that the maker of the self-driving system would be held liable, in this case Google. But if the crash were a result of a human error -- say because the driver disengaged the self-driving system while driving distractedly -- then our state's fault laws would likely be applied in the same way they always have.

Source: The Atlantic, "When Google Self-Driving Cars Are in Accidents, Humans Are to Blame," Adrienne Lafrance, June 8, 2015

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