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Self-Driving Cars – A Personal Injury Lawyer Perspective

Over the past several years, the topic of self-driving cars has been the focus of many an article. Typically, these articles discuss the software and hardware needed to make these cars go while other topics include how the testing is progressing and how the future looks for self-driving cars.

As a personal injury lawyer, I am intrigued not only with the idea of self-driving cars but with the thought of how self-driving cars will shape the future of personal injury law.


For the uninitiated, self-driving cars have been on the minds of automobile manufacturers and computer software developers for decades. While many people believe that the ideas behind self-driving cars are new, testing for various types of self-driving cars actually dates back to the 1920s. As everyone knows, over the decades, technology has rapidly advanced and, with those advancements, the reality of SDCs has now become not only realistic but expected.  What used to be viewed as science-fiction is now viewed as an inevitability.

Self-driving cars (SDC) or “autonomous cars” are just that – cars that operate without human interaction aside from the riders programming where they wish to go. Most SDCs are controlled by, primarily, a series of three computers.

In the absolute simplest form, these three computers work as follows: the first is a relatively straightforward global positioning satellite (GPS) which dictates the route the car will take from point A to point B. The GPS units being used in these cars are not terribly different than many onboard GPS systems currently in use in standard cars. The next computer in use on the SDC is one that controls the operation of the car itself. This computer runs the steering, acceleration, braking, and the like. Finally, the third computer works as an interface between the two previously mentioned computers – it takes the GPS readings and feeds that information to the operational computer which responds by moving the car at appropriate speeds, stopping, and turning.

Although Google seems to get the most press as it pertains to SDCs, many major automobile manufacturers are working with this technology as well. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, General Motors, and Toyota are but a few of the “big names” who are working feverishly to make autonomous cars a reality. Audi is also a player in this market and realized a certain amount of success when, in 2010, they successfully “raced” a TTS to the top of Pike’s Peak in 2010.  With continued advancements in technology, it seems certain that self-driving cars will someday be as commonplace on our streets as any other type of vehicle.

Are Self-Driving Cars Safe?

When asking whether or not a car is “safe”, in the context of SDCs, what most people mean is, “Do SDCs get in more accidents than other cars?”  According to Google, not only are self-driving cars “safe” but they are actually safer than human operated cars. In researching for this blog post, different statistics regarding the number of accidents these cars have been involved in surfaced. The discrepancies are most likely due to the timing of various studies or, perhaps, some unintentional misinformation. That said, without regard to which study is being reviewed, the number of car accidents in which these SDCs are involvedappears to be quite low.

Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s self-driving car program, has indicated that Google cars have logged approximately one-million seven-hundred thousand miles since 2009 and have been involved in just eleven accidents. Of those eleven, not one involved serious personal injury but were classified as “property damage only” cases. And, perhaps more importantly, according to Google, not one of those accidents was caused by the SDC; rather, each accident was caused by another human operated car.

Rear-end accidents, accidents in which another car ran into the rear of the SDC, accounted for seven of the reported accidents while side-swipe type accidents accounted for the rest, save one in which another driver ran through a red light and struck the SDC.

Based on available data, it appears that SDCs are safe in so much as they don’t seem to cause accidents. However, although 1.7 million miles sounds impressive, it is but a drop in the bucket when compared to total annual miles of human operated cars and it is also important to note that there are very few SDCs on the roads today. In fact, only four states have laws allowing such cars on public roads, those being: Nevada, Florida, California, and Michigan. It is practically impossible to know how the safety statistics of SDCs might change once the number of these cars explodes.

Personal Injury Lawyers And The Self-Driving Car
If the current number of accidents involving SDCs is to be accepted and if we are to extrapolate the current safety studies into the future, there appears to be no doubt that the number of personal injury car accidents will decrease and that is a good thing. That, of course, won’t happen until the majority of the cars on the road are self-driving.

That said, there may well be other types of personal injury car accidents that arise due to this technology. Everyone has experienced a computer glitch at least once in their life – what happens if that “glitch” causes the self-driving car to injure another person? That injured person has a right to be fully compensated for those injuries but who is the claim made against? Is the claim against the driver of the car for failing to properly maintain the computer? The company that developed the software that “glitched” and caused the crash?; The intermediary who installed the on-board computers? Whoever the proper “defendant” turns out to be, it is clear that it likely won’t be as simple as making a claim against the driver.

Another legal concern for people injured by self-driving cars will be the ability to make a claim once the proper defendant is identified. Take, for example, any car manufacturer who puts a SDC on the road. As an experienced personal injury attorney, I can imagine the resistance that people could face in their efforts to sue for injuries. Car manufacturers have extremely deep pockets and an army of lawyers to help protect them. With these types of resources, it is easy to see a plaintiff lawyer being challenged at every turn in his or her efforts to obtain compensation for their clients.

Furthermore, “venue”, could become an issue for these kinds of personal injury cases. In this context, “venue” means where a lawsuit can be brought. In a typical case, a lawsuit can be filed in state court in the county where the defendant lives or where the accident happens. In the case of an SDC accident, will plaintiffs be required to sue these manufacturers in their home state or perhaps federal court? Does a simple “negligence” case become a much more complicated (and expensive) product liability case? These scenarios don’t mean the end of a personal injury case but they could certainly complicate what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward case.

Additionally, a good personal injury lawyer must be extremely knowledgeable about the subject matter he or she is suing over. Therefore, in addition to the legal questions, personal injury lawyers who handle cases involving self-driving cars will have an extremely steep learning curve when it comes to the functioning and programming of on-board computers, hacking, and glitches.


The future of self-driving cars appears bright and, if they work as anticipated, we can expect to see a drop in personal injury car accidents and that is good news. Pain and suffering aside, reducing car accidents would save untold millions of dollars on health care, car repairs, lost time from work, and insurance.

However, SDCs are just beginning to scratch the surface of the motoring public and only time will tell if these cars work as planned on a large scale. If and when there is a crash, the public will still be in need of a skilled and experienced personal injury attorney. The need may prove to be even greater if some of the scenarios previously mentioned come to pass.


If you find yourself involved in any type of car accident, contact a personal injury lawyer at Des Moines Injury today for a free consultation. We can be reached at 515-493-4878. As always, we never charge a fee unless we make a recovery for you.