It’s exciting — and scary — that we will be “driving” self-driving cars soon. How quickly and safely depends upon the actions of lawmakers in the next few weeks.
Today much less restrictive Department of Transportation guidelines are being announced. Last week the U.S. House passed the SELF DRIVE Act. This past Friday a similar bill was proposed in the U.S. Senate which has bi-partisan support.
While these news laws and regulations will expedite the development of self-driving technology, they unfortunately relax standards for vehicle safety. While the auto industry cheered the new rules and plan to rush new models to marketMany safety advocates have voiced objections. Why? These laws exempts manufacturers from crucial safety regulations controlling braking, airbag and steering systems.
We know that with millions of Takata airbags that had to be recalled after some exploded and shot shrapnel into drivers and passengers, killing at least 11 people, the GM ignition switches that suddenly shut engines off, and the other auto safety debacles in the past 10 years, our vehicles are already more dangerous than ever.
Thorny new legal questions
And how will personal injury litigation be affected? Here are just some of the questions lawyers and judges will have to confront:
- Who will be held responsible if there is a collision — the manufacturer, say Tesla? The software developer, say Google? The driver, say you?
- How much control will the driver have to maintain?
- Can the driver take over the self-driving mode to prevent a collision, and if he doesn’t, will he or she be at fault?
- Can these vehicles be hacked into and disabled, causing crashes?
Just yesterday Google accepted some of the liability for the crash that killed its driver last year as he was test driving a Tesla.
How will courts be able to determine liability without complicated and expensive scientific and engineering experts? What if the driver claims the software suddenly stopped working? What if it does? What if the driver fails to download needed updates? It’s a potential legal nightmare.
Car automation will make our roads safer
There is no doubt that automation will be a boon to traffic safety. More than 30,000 people are killed in car crashes every year. Human error is responsible for almost all of those.
Could self-driving cars really save more than 30,000 lives a year? With that benefit in mind, I can’t imagine anybody not in support of the new technology. Might we welcome the next generation into a safer world where drunk, distracted and careless drivers do not needlessly kill thousands of people. I’d like to hope so.
We have already witnessed the advantageous to vehicle automation, including sensors that detect other objects around the car, driver alert systems and even automatic braking systems.
I support automated vehicles, as most consumer safety advocates are, and I am excited about the work technology companies are doing to make these vehicles a reality Let’s not ruin a good thing by sacrificing safety for expediency.
We need to keep the focus of safety
Our highways are already too dangerous. Last year the government issued self-driving car regulations which asked manufacturers to submit their new designs to a 15-point safety assessment before releasing the vehicles onto the market. Automakers complained that pre-market approval would cause delays in putting their product on the market.
The new regulations allow release of automated cars that contained no human controls and bar states from blocking these models from their roadways. Automakers could obtain exemptions on safety standards for 25,000 vehicles annually in the next three years and 100,000 each year thereafter. The companies would not require pre-market approval but just submit a safety assessment report to government safety regulators.
These relaxed safety standards do not protect consumers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has done an excellent job improving safety. I hope to see that trend continue as we welcome self-driving vehicles onto our roadways.