Self-driving cars have caught the attention of the nation and Ohio is ready for them. Ohio has created a statewide center called DriveOhio to advance efforts to become a national leader in automated vehicle research and smart road technology. Ohio also has invested $15 million to build the country’s longest automated-vehicle-ready highway as a test ground for self-driving vehicles. It’s a 35-mile stretch on Route 33 northwest of Columbus that is lined with fiber-optic cables to make it possible to communicate traffic conditions, collision, and weather changes to driverless vehicles over a WiFi network.
Tesla, Uber, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Intel, GM, and others are currently testing automated vehicles. Self-driving cars and trucks are still in their infancy, and right now none is for sale to individuals in the United States. However, it’s estimated there will be 10 million on the road by 2020. (Just to put that into perspective, that’s still a small percentage compared to the 1.4 billion cars on the road now.)
Many people are afraid of the concept of self-driving cars and that skepticism appears to be growing, according to a J.D. Power study. But experts say that automated vehicles will save lives. Ninety-four percent of automobile collisions are caused by human error. Self-driving cars and trucks are expected to reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities that are now caused by distracted driving, drunken driving, and drivers just making the wrong choices. According to a study by nonprofit think-tank Eno Center for Transportation, if 10% of the vehicles on the country’s roads were automated, 1,100 lives would be saved. If 90% were automated, 21,700 lives would be saved.
So rather than being expensive, dangerous toys, automated vehicles may cut down on crashes and save lives.
Automated Vehicle Fatalities
Of course, this does not mean that self-driving vehicles are fool-proof. In May 2016, Joshua Brown of Canton, Ohio, became the first person to be killed in a self-driving Tesla Model S on autopilot when he crashed into a tractor trailer in Florida. A tractor trailer pulled out in front of Brown from an intersecting road. The car’s cameras did not recognize it as a vehicle against the bright sky, and the automated car plowed right into the larger vehicle.
An investigation conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found the automobile’s self-driving system was not at fault or defective. The autopilot was intended to help but not replace human drivers. Government investigators found that the automated system gave Brown six audible warnings to keep his hands on the wheel and seven visual ones through his dashboard. Tesla claimed it was the first crash involving autopilot in 130 million miles of driving. For normal vehicles in the United States, there is statistically one death for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
Another unfortunate first occurred in March 2018 when a pedestrian jaywalked into the path of a self-driving car operated by Uber. The pedestrian stepped off the median and out of the shadows onto the road. Elaine Herzberg of Tempe, Arizona, became the first person to be killed by an automated vehicle by force of impact. The city’s police chief said the pedestrian was likely at fault, but the National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation.
The Law May Need to Catch Up with the Technology of Self-Driving Cars
At this point, self-driving cars are not intended to be used without driver supervision. Therefore, manufacturers are unlikely to be held responsible if a driver could have and should have avoided a crash.
Today, humans are expected to take control of self-driving cars if need be. However, that may not be true of second-generation self-driving cars. Google has developed prototypes without steering wheels or brake pedals. When cars eventually are meant to operate without human intervention, it’s likely that manufacturers will be held responsible for accidents.
The NHTSA’s September 2016 report on autonomous vehicles suggests that different legal standards should apply, “based on whether the human operator or the automated system is primarily responsible for monitoring the driving environment.”
Self-Driving Car Lawsuits
Lawsuits could be complicated, particularly for vehicles where humans are not meant to be in charge. Many different entities could potentially be held responsible, including software developers, car component manufacturers, the vehicle manufacturer, and possibly a fleet owner in case of a commercial organization such as Uber. Expert technical testimony will be required, and system failures will have to be analyzed. This all makes for very expensive litigation.
Litigation involving two people who are in an auto collision with typical vehicles is relatively straightforward, particularly compared to what litigation will be like with self-driving vehicles. As with other types of technology such as the Internet, it may take a while for the legal system to catch up.