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Autonomous car accident: who is responsible?

The gradual arrival of autonomous cars raises the question of responsibilities and compensation for possible victims.

The gradual advent of autonomous cars on our roads raises questions regarding liability and compensation for possible victims. In a world where technology evolves rapidly, the legislator is often quickly overwhelmed, which also generally slows down the democratization of these technologies.

During the 2010s, manufacturers made optimistic announcements about autonomous vehicles, which prompted many governments to look into the issue. In France, the highway code has evolved to include categories of “partially”, “highly” or “fully” automated vehicles. But what about liability in the event of an accident?

Differences between the highway code and the transport code

The legislative response is clear: the driver remains responsible when the vehicle is under his control, but also when the vehicle asks the driver to take control again. As long as a driver is present in the vehicle and able to regain control, they are legally responsible for the accident.

However, this responsibility is different in the highway code compared to the transport code, which deals with fully autonomous shuttle services. In the highway code, which concerns personal cars, we are not yet talking about fully autonomous shuttles.

Manufacturers also held responsible

The question of manufacturer liability arises in serious cases, particularly when personal injury is involved and the manufacturer can be established to have been at fault, such as marketing an autonomous vehicle with critical software deficiencies. In such cases, the manufacturer could be held legally responsible.

For less serious infractions, such as running a red light or exceeding the speed limit in autonomous mode, the manufacturer could have a “pecuniary liability” et will have to pay the corresponding finebut he would not be criminally responsible.

Regarding compensation for victims, the law remains pragmatic. Whether a vehicle is in autonomous mode or not, the insurers of the car(s) involved in an accident are required to compensate the victims.

Insurers play a key role by having access to the vehicle’s “black box” in the event of an accident, allowing them to detect possible design defects. This means that manufacturers’ insurers must cover new risks, thereby implying an inevitable increase in costs, which will obviously be reflected in car prices.

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