Who is liable to pay compensation if a (partially) autonomous machine causes damage? The manufacturer? The programmer? The person who employed it? Or is it even possible that the machine itself is liable?
In [tort law] in principle, anyone can be held liable who has deliberately or negligently caused damage. If the manufacturer had not produced and marketed the machine, the damage could not have occurred to the end user. Therefore, he can be held liable if he could have foreseen or even simply tacitly accepted that use of the machine could cause damage to property or even physical injury. In addition, liability under product liability law applies. This entails significantly lower requirements for liability to be incurred by the manufacturer and places a significantly lower evidential burden on end users.
Programmers face essentially the same risks. Even the vendors of machines can incur liability in relation to end users. In such cases, there may indeed be an additional source of liability to deliver a safe machine, namely under the contract of sale, as this would normally include a term that the machine was safe.
Different law is applicable in the case of motor vehicles. Here the rule is that the holder of a vehicle is always liable for traffic accidents regardless of fault. This is supplemented by a regime of compulsory motor insurance. The result of this approach is that an injured party always has recourse to a solvent [judgment] debtor from whom he can get compensation for his financial loss. This same law applies to vehicles equipped with driver assistance systems and, theoretically, would also apply to fully automated motor vehicles. It is for this reason, that German legal science is currently discussing in detail whether a similar scheme of insurance should exist for all machines with a high degree of autonomy. Also currently under discussion is the idea of giving such systems a kind of legal personality of their own, so that they themselves would incur liability for damage attributed to them. Exciting questions, which despite many years of discussion, still await final answers...