A new technological advance that is currently being tested and raising new questions about legal liability are self-driving cars. Several companies have developed an automated driving vehicle including Volvo and Google.
Volvo is venturing into the realm of fully automated vehicles, with a system called IntelliSafe Auto Pilot. The system detects the surrounding environment with cameras, radars, and ultrasonic sensors, as well as a laser scanner in front that detects dangers and gives warnings. The system uses GPS to map out the cars route and connect to the Cloud to receive real-time data about its surroundings.
Google is another company working on self-driving cars. The cars use “sensors and software to sense objects like pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles and more, and are designed to safely drive around them.” Using sensors and maps, the car determines where it is and what is around it. The software then predicts what the object near it will do and chooses a path based on that prediction. According to Google’s Self-Driving Car Project Monthly Report for February 2016, the company currently has 23 Lexus SUV’s and 33 prototype vehicles. The report states that the company has logged 1,452,177 miles in autonomous mode. However, the technology isn’t perfect as a recent accident shows.
According to the report and various news stories, one of Google’s automated SUV’s was driving down a street in Mountain View, California. The road has right lanes wide enough for vehicles to pass cars going straight on the right and make a right turn. A few weeks prior to the accident, Google gave the car the ability to make these same-lane turns. On Valentine’s Day, the vehicle was being driven in autonomous mode and had pulled to the right to make this same-lane turn when it detected some sandbags that were in its way. Since there were objects blocking the path, the SUV had to pull around them. The Google car detected an approaching public bus and using its automated system, it made the prediction that the bus would yield to the SUV. The bus did not yield and the SUV struck the side of the bus. The crash was low speed, with the SUV going 2 mph and the bus 15 mph. No injuries were reported from the accident.
Google has admitted some responsibility for the accident and made corrections to their software to handle a similar situation differently next time. The question of liability in self-driving cars is an interesting one. The area of law is developing, as new technology requires new types of laws to determine liability. One suggestion is that the manufacturer may be held liable for accidents caused by the car. After all, if the car is in control, not the driver, the mistakes would be the result of vehicle error, not human error. Volvo has said that it will accept liability for accidents that its automated cars cause. Another idea is to make the car, as a robot, a legal person who must carry its own insurance. Or as the car is the property of the owner, the owner may retain liability for the car’s actions, which is more akin to liability now.
It will be interesting to see how liability is determined as self-driving cars become used more and more. One “transport scholar at the University of Minnesota believes that by 2030 every car on the road will be driverless,” according to the Insurance Information Institute. Whether or not this prediction comes true remains to be seen, but it is certain that the issue of liability in self-driving vehicles will need to be determined in the future.