When a self-driving car gets into a crash in North Carolina, who can be held responsible?

Car accidents involving two or more drivers happen every day in Wilmington. Crashes between a motorist and a self-driving vehicle do not — at least, not yet.

Companies like Tesla, Google and GM are hard at work making self-driving cars ready for the U.S. market. For years, they have been testing this technology on roads and highways across the country. These companies say that their automated vehicles will change the way we move around and virtually eliminate injuries from things like drunk driving, speeding and distracted driving.

But every few months or so, a story hits the news where a self-driving vehicle was involved in a serious accident. This raises an important question: if a self-driving vehicle crashes into you and you get hurt, who can you seek compensation from?

Automated vehicle passengers still have responsibilities

Like most things in the law, the answer depends mostly on the particular facts of your crash. Virtually all the self-driving technology in development requires one of the passengers to sit in the driver’s seat, alert and ready to take over in case the system is causing a potential collision. If the “driver” of the self-driving vehicle in your wreck failed to take control when needed or did take over but drove negligently, they may be liable for your injuries under North Carolina’s personal injury laws.

What about the automaker?

But there may be another responsible party. It’s possible that your crash was the result of faulty programming or a defective part — things the manufacturer would be responsible for. Under the principle of vicarious liability, the automaker might be liable even though none of its employees was directly involved in the collision.

Again, the particular facts in your case determines who you should pursue compensation against. And self-driving vehicles — and crashes involving them — are still rare. But someday, we could see a rash of such incidents.

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