The development of self-driving cars has been met with both excitement and concern. One of the biggest worries about self-driving cars is the potential for a self-driving car to hit a pedestrian. While this risk seems unlikely, it could become a reality if safety protocols are not in place or followed. To gain an understanding of what happens when a self-driving car hits a pedestrian, let’s look at the current regulations, possible consequences, and ways to reduce the probability of such an unfortunate event.

Potential Legal Consequences of an Autonomous Vehicle Hitting a Pedestrian

Regulations regarding self-driving cars vary from state to state. Different states have laws and regulations affecting drivers of these vehicles, their manufacturers, and even law enforcement or government agencies. These laws also define terms like “autonomous vehicle” so that there is a clear, legal definition to reference in court cases.

In general, the consequences for hitting a pedestrian with a self-driving car depend on many factors, including:

  • Where you live 
  • Who was at fault for the crash 
  • What laws were broken (if any) 

It’s also important to understand that there are two different types of self-driving technology with different levels of liability: Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and Autonomous Driving Systems (ADS).

  • ADAS, falling under driving automation levels 0-2, are what you’ll find in many cars on the road today. These systems assist human drivers with tasks like braking and keeping within lanes, but they don’t take over driving completely.

When we talk about new, self-driving technology that is commercially available, we are typically referring to Level 2: driving assistance that can steer, accelerate, or brake but still necessitate the full attention, and in turn liability, of a human driver.

  • ADS, on the other hand, refers to fully autonomous vehicles that can handle all aspects of driving without any human intervention; these are levels 3-5 of driving automation. Though not yet common on our roads, they are the focus of intense development and testing.

Tennessee Law

In Tennessee, it’s a Class A misdemeanor to operate an ADS vehicle on public Tennessee roads without a human driver in the driver’s seat unless all state requirements are met (TN Code § 55-30-103). 

Due to the nature of these requirements, a Level 3 autonomous vehicle could not legally be driven without a human driver because, in the event of system failure, the vehicle cannot perform a “minimal risk condition” and all control must be taken by the person in the driver’s seat. 

According to TN Code § 55-30-106 though, if a fully autonomous vehicle (ADS) hits a pedestrian, the manufacturer of the vehicle could be held liable if the system was “fully engaged, operated reasonably and in compliance with manufacturer instructions and warnings”. 

Learn more about who could be at fault in a self-driving vehicle accident.

Steps We Can Take To Reduce The Likelihood Of A Self-Driving Car Hitting A Pedestrian

Pedestrian Victims of Self-Driving Vehicles

Though it might seem as if we’re discussing a faraway future when considering self-driving vehicles hitting pedestrians, such incidents have unfortunately occurred. For example, in 2018, Elaine Herzberg was struck and killed by an Uber self-driving car while crossing the street at night. The car failed to recognize her presence and did not take evasive action in time. Because the car’s human driver was inappropriately distracted at the time of the accident, they were held liable as opposed to the company.

Fortunately, there are steps we as a society can take to reduce the likelihood of a self-driving car hitting a pedestrian:

  • Ensure that all drivers have adequate training and knowledge before they get behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle
  • Urge manufacturers to prioritize safety in all aspects of self-driving car fabrication, from software development to hardware design
  • Encourage governments to implement stringent safety protocols and laws so that drivers can experience the convenience of self-driving cars without sacrificing their safety. 

By following these guidelines and continuing to stay up-to-date on the latest technology, we can help make sure that our roads are safe and everyone on them is protected. It’s up to all of us to work together so that we can enjoy the benefits of self-driving cars without jeopardizing pedestrian safety. 

Hopefully, we are moving forward to a future where self-driving cars are commonplace and accidents are rare.

Dive into the resources below to learn about the technology and legal aspects involved in the world of so-called “self-driving” autonomous vehicles: