General Motors is facing one of the first lawsuits to involve an autonomous vehicle, after a collision between its Cruise self-driving car and a motorbike in California.
Motorcyclist Oscar Nilsson is suing GM stating that the Chevrolet Bolt, which was operating in autonomous mode with a backup driver behind the wheel, “suddenly veered back into Nilsson’s lane, striking Nilsson and knocking him to the ground”.
The accident happened on 7 December in heavy traffic in the Hayes Valley district of San Francisco, with the GM vehicle reportedly travelling at 12mph and the motorcycle 17mph. The accident report filed with the California disputes Nilsson’s claims.
The report states that the autonomous vehicle was driving in the centre of three one-way lanes. It attempted to move into the left lane when the available space was truncated by braking traffic, causing the GM car to abort its move and return to the centre of the middle lane.
“As the Cruise AV was re-centring itself in the lane, a motorcycle that that had just lane-split between two vehicles in the centre and right lanes moved into the centre lane, glanced the side of the Cruise AV, wobbled and fell over,” says the report. “The motorcyclist was determined to be at fault for attempting to overtake and pass another vehicle on the right under conditions that did not permit that movement in safety.”
Nilsson was able to walk his motorbike to the side of the road before exchanging information with the GM car’s occupants and receiving medical care for shoulder pain.
Nilsson’s lawyer Sergei Lemberg disputed the report. He told Mercury News: “I don’t know what a police officer can tell, after the fact.
“I don’t know that it’s fair to blame this act on the completely innocent person who’s just driving down the road and gets hit.”
GM said that it intentionally tests its self-driving vehicles in challenging conditions. A GM spokesperson told Jalopnik: “Safety is our primary focus when it comes to developing and testing our self-driving technology. In this matter, the San Francisco Police Department collision report determined that the motorcyclist merged into our lane before it was safe to do so.”
Who is to blame when technology is in the driving seat?
As more self-driving cars take to the streets, lawsuits such as Nilsson’s are inevitable, but it highlights the dilemma of autonomous vehicles: who pays in the case of an accident.
Testing vehicles are clearly operated by the company developing the technology, in this case GM, but once the vehicles are bought and owned by individuals the picture of who is to blame becomes much more murky. Should the driver, who may or may not be in direct control of the vehicle at the time, have responsibility for all operations of the vehicle?
It’s likely that the vehicle’s collection of data as part of its operation that could be used to prove fault, but whether the companies operating them will want to set a precedent and give up that data remains to be seen.
Professor Bryant Walker Smith, from the University of South Carolina’s School of Law, told Mercury News that he expects companies to settle suits quickly if they believe their technology is at fault, but fight fiercely should human operators of other vehicles be at fault.
GM is not the only traditional automotive manufacturer racing to challenge the likes of Alphabet’s Waymo and Uber with self-driving technology. A collision involving a car from Ford’s autonomous vehicle firm Argo recently sent two people to hospital.