February 28, 2017
Self-driving cars are outfitted with lasers, cameras, and GPS technology to navigate and sense the environment without human input. The idea being that these cars, equipped with amplified awareness, can make better decisions on how to travel the roadways than humans can.
Goolge, Tesla, and Uber have all reported that human error plays a role in 94% of car crashes. The three companies are in a heated race to develop self-driving technology and “make our roads safer.” But is eliminating the human factor our solution? Maybe not. The first recorded death in a Tesla vehicle that was using self-driving mode was due to an error in the operating system’s calculations. On May 7, 2016, Joshua Brown’s Tesla Model S drove under the trailer of an 18-wheel truck on a highway while in self-driving mode. Tesla acknowledged that the sensors on the vehicle failed to distinguish the white trailer against a bright sky, resulting in the death of the 40-year-old Floridian.
In contrast, some of the lowest rates of fatalities per distance driven are registered with middle-aged drivers who benefit from their experience behind the wheel and from their predictive knowledge about the likely intentions of other road users.
More worrisome than an operating system error is the fact that many cars are now controlled by software that can be hacked and overtaken. In 2015, two hackers showed a reporter at WIRED, a technology publication, that they could remotely hijack and crash a Jeep Cherokee. The two hackers created software that allowed them to send commands through the Jeep’s entertainment system to its dashboard functions, steering, brakes, and transmission, all from their laptop.
New technology presents a different defendant to the legal community. Plaintiffs will be looking toward the companies creating the software and hardware powering these vehicles, as well as the manufacturers. Some companies are stepping up to the plate though. In 2015, the Volvo President, Håkan Samuelsson, said that Volvo would accept full responsibility when its cars are in self-driving mode.
It is clear that each advance in car technology will impact several major industries. The U.S. Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, recently said: “There’s a lot at stake in getting this technology right.” For many reasons, we couldn’t agree more.