Will Autonomous Vehicles Cause Car Accidents? Summer 2016 Edition

It's very likely you've seen one of the many news headlines touting the rapid development of self driving vehicles. Companies like Google, Ford, GM, and others are working towards making vehicles that require no human control at all, and they're getting close to a product good enough to be sold to consumers.

Just last year, in March of 2015, Delphi successfully completed the world’s first 3500-mile cross-country trip of an autonomous vehicle, and did so safely, with no incidents or collisions. This was achieved with a modified Audi SQ5. There were several people in the car the entire time, monitor the journey and how well the new tech performed in a variety of traffic scenarios. Even though it wasn't ever a problem, there was someone in the drivers seat, ready to take the wheel if need be.

Ford has made the prediction that within 5 years, at least one company will have a self driving vehicle ready for sale. With four years left to go on that time line, it's seems as though it might happen even sooner than previously imagined.

The current best selling electric car in the US, Tesla's Model S, had an available upgrade that allows for computer assisted driving. It's not full-form autonomous driving, but it's very close. The drive can let of the wheel, and the car can brake, accelerate, steer, and even change lanes without any input from the driver at all. It's suspected that the ability for these cars to become fully autonomous is nothing more than a software update away, but with many states not having clear laws on the subject, the manufacturer is playing it safe, and keeping within the confines of the laws that are currently in place.

Which then raises the question about what laws will be needed when more of these self-driving vehicles become available. What happens when there's an accident? Who is at fault? Is the person behind the wheel held responsible, even though he or she wasn't the one controlling the vehicle? Or is it the fault of the manufacturer, who wrote the software that was driving the car? These aren't questions that the law has answered yet, and there will be a lot of debate over how these situations should be handled.

Admittedly, to date, there has only been one single accident involving an autonomous vehicle, and was a collision between one of Google's AV test cars, and a city bus in Mountain View, CA. The car was only moving 2mph, and the bus was moving 15mph. No one was injured, and it's not clear that the autonomous vehicle was at fault. It's no surprise that a computer that can make thousands of decisions in a fraction of a second, and use sensors to see in all directions at once would be a safer driver than a human being, which by comparison is much more dangerous.

As a species, we're not perfect. Human drivers can make mistakes, get distracted, and miss obstacles that exist in one of our many visual blind spots. Millions of people have been killed in vehicle accidents as a result of human error, and the hope is that the implementation of autonomous vehicles will bring that number way down.

Even so, there are so few of these cars on the road today there's not many opportunities for self-driving cars to have an accident. When the sales numbers begin to climb, and the roads fill with cars that are driving on their own, the rate of accidents is likely going to increase. And what happens when a cars computer has to make a difficult moral decision?

Imagine a scenario where a car is rapidly approaching an obstacle, such as a fallen tree, or another traffic accident in the middle of the road. The car can scan its surroundings, and plan a course around the obstacle. At least, that's the ideal outcome. What happens when the car senses pedestrians standing in the only route in which the car can avoid the obstacle, and still keep its occupants alive? Once again, modern technology brings us face to face with questions and dilemmas we don't yet have answers for.

These are issues that the average American isn't likely to face when going to work this week, or next week, or any other week this year. But sometime soon, sooner than many people realize, these are going to be problems that will affect the lives of more and more people. Navigating the legal process after a collision involving traditional vehicles that run on fossil fuels is complicated enough. Having to do so through uncharted legal territory is going to be something much, much more difficult.
Posted June 06, 2016
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