Future Cars

GM sued over self-driving car crash with motorcyclist

This is the first-known lawsuit stemming from an accident involving an autonomous vehicle.

General Motors

We knew it would happen, we just didn't know when: An automaker is being sued by a motorist following an accident with one of the company's self-driving cars. General Motors is in the hot seat because motorcyclist Oscar Nilsson is claiming that he was struck by one of the company's Cruise autonomous test vehicles. 

A backup human driver -- which GM refers to as an Advanced Vehicle Trainer -- was present in the Chevy-Bolt-EV-based vehicle.

The accident happened in San Francisco on December 7 amidst heavy traffic. The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in San Francisco, alleges that the Cruise test vehicle "suddenly veered back into Nilsson's lane, striking Nilsson and knocking him to the ground." According to the San Francisco Police Department's accident report, the incident occurred at relatively low speeds, with the Cruise test vehicle driving at 12 mph and the motorcycle traveling at 17 mph.

As with most accidents, there are (at least) two sides to the story.

In the lawsuit, Nilsson maintains that the he was on his motorcycle trailing the Cruise EV, when the car executed a left lane change. Nilsson says he pulled forward, only to have the self-driving car pull into his lane, hitting him.

According to a report in The Mercury News, GM's version of the events differs from that of the plaintiff:

"The company acknowledged that the car, in autonomous-driving mode in heavy traffic, had aborted a lane change. But GM said that as its car was 're-centering itself' in the lane, Nilsson, who had been riding between two lanes in a legal-in-California practice known as lane-splitting, 'moved into the center lane, glanced the side of the Cruise … wobbled, and fell over.'"

Nilsson's lawsuit claims that "as a result of the crash, Mr. Nilsson suffered injuries to his neck and shoulder and will require lengthy treatment." Further, the plaintiff "was forced to take disability leave from his work," and says "Mr. Nilsson sustained serious injuries of the body and mind and incurred expenses for medical care and attendance." The lawsuit also says that "the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000."

Now Playing: Watch this: GM shows off its autonomus future with the Cruise AV
2:03

For its part, in its accident report, the SFPD found Nilsson to be culpable. According to its accident 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…" The same report also indicates that the Cruise test car did attempt to stop its lane-change manoeuvre, and notes that the GM backup driver tried to steer away from Nilsson, but could not avoid the accident.

While it's impossible to know exactly what happened, GM engineers will undoubtedly have reams of data from their autonomous test car to investigate the matter, including lidar and radar sensor data, as well as video recordings from the Cruise AV's many cameras. Some or all of that data will also likely be subject to disclosure in court.

A GM spokesperson gave the following statement to Roadshow: 

"Safety is our primary focus when it comes to developing and testing our self-driving technology. In this matter, the SFPD collision report stated that the motorcyclist merged into our lane before it was safe to do so."

Lemberg Law LLC, Nilsson's attorneys, did not immediately return a request for comment. We will update this story as we have more information.

It's still firmly in the early days for self-driving vehicles, and although this is likely the first lawsuit regarding an accident with an autonomous vehicle, it certainly won't be its last. The Nilsson vs. GM suit is already being looked at as a litmus test for the young technology, which will need to pass persistent legal scrutiny as it matures and moves toward commercialization.