Level 3 Automated Vehicles and Criminal Law

Current events focus a spotlight on potential criminal liability for operation of an automated vehicle. In Arizona, the safety driver in an Uber robotaxi pled guilty to negligent homicide for a fatality that occurred while an automated driving system (ADS) was engaged. Shortly before that, the owner of a Tesla pled no contest to a charge of negligent homicide for fatalities caused while Tesla AutoPilot, which automates vehicle control under driver supervision, was engaged.

In both cases, automation controlled the braking, speed and steering of the vehicle at the time of the accident. Prosecutors in both cases pursued criminal charges against the human operator on the theory that, despite use of an automation system, both drivers had ultimate responsibility for the safe operation of the vehicle. Assignment of responsibility to the human operator in these cases is consistent with limited existing case law. However, the decision to prosecute ignored the very real problem of automation complacency as an excuse, though it may have been a mitigating factor in sentencing without jail time.