“What if it could be easier and safer for everyone to get around?” This is the tagline of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project. With statistics being released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that human error is the cause of 94% of the motor vehicle collisions in the U.S., the idea of driverless cars appears quite appealing. But is this “safer-alternative” as flawless as it seems? Some may believe it is with recent rumors that Uber’s driverless cars are hitting the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in late September 2016.
According to Google’s brief history on the topic, the idea of driverless cars has been around since the 1930’s. But what does it mean to be a driverless car? The NHTSA defines self-driving vehicles as those in which operation of the vehicle occurs without direct driver input to control the steering, acceleration, and braking and are designed so that the driver is not expected to constantly monitor the roadway while operating in self-driving mode.
Google joined the self-driving car project in 2009 and since then more than 1.5 million miles have been driven on the roads of select cities in Arizona, California, Texas, and Washington. Presently, all test drives are conducted using test drivers. However, Google announced earlier this year that they ultimately want their self-driving cars to be designed without steering wheels or pedals. The removal of these items would eliminate the ability of human riders to take control in the event an error occurs with the operating system of the self-driving car.
This idea is a rather unnerving one to most, but rest assured, the days of driverless cars are still in the distant future because many issues must be ironed out before this dream becomes a reality. Business Insider recently released a report of six scenarios that these self-driving cars have difficulty handling:
1. Driving over bridges;
2. Driving in inclement weather;
3. Driving on roads without clear lines;
4. Driving in busy cities;
5. Driving with a “moral compass,” i.e., deciding whether it is less fatal to hit the car in front of you or to swerve off the road and risk hitting the pedestrians walking alongside the road; and
6. Driving in high speed situations.
These scenarios have unfortunately proved to be very real risks. In a California city one of the Google self-driving cars hit the side of a bus when it failed to recognize the difference between the side of the white bus and the brightly-lit skyline while merging into the lane the bus occupied. Additionally, in Florida, a Tesla Model S sedan was involved in a fatal accident while in self-driving mode when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla and the Tesla failed to apply the brakes.
In addition to the arguably obvious risks that a driverless car may pose, what other implications will these vehicles have on the community at large?
USA Today released an article on August 27, 2016 discussing the effects of this technology on the insurance industry. When the kinks and errors are reduced and/or eliminated in the future and the crash rates drop by an estimated 80% by 2040, Donald Light, a technology analyst for Celent, predicts that insurance companies will be forced to drop their rates as much as 70%.
Moreover, when the operator of the vehicle is no longer your neighbor, and is instead a highly sophisticated operating system, a suit based on negligence may no longer be the answer. Instead, the legal community is likely to observe an increase in suits based on strict product liability again manufacturer and other in the line of distribution. Donald Light commented in the USA today article that the owners of the self-driving cars will not be on the hook for most crashes, instead the blame will shift to the manufacturers and designers of the self-driving operating systems. Also, there may be recourse in claims against dealers and other persons and business charged with the responsibility to maintain these vehicles should there be a negligent maintenance issue. There is concern Congress may pass federal preemption legislation protecting manufacturers, designers and distributors. Where will that leave the average consumer who becomes a victim faultiness in the technology.
So what does this mean for the cost of these vehicles? Insurance rates may drop dramatically based on the lack of need to cash in on your policy, but will these cars be affordable for the average hard-working person? Only time will tell what the full consequences of this new technology will be, but it is safe to say that more than just the motor vehicle industry will have to adapt to these changes.
A civil trial attorney with the firm Wooten, Kimbrough, Damaso & Dennis, P.A., Mr. Damaso concentrates on cases involving personal injury and wrongful deaths and solely represents individual victims and consumers. He takes his clients' cases personally and is committed to their best possible outcome. His strong sense of community has led to his support of numerous charities in the Orlando area.