Self-Driving Cars: Are They Safer?

Selfdriving car with navigation sensor and satellite vector illustrationAccording to studies, 90% of car crashes are caused by human error. Lawmakers, insurers, and manufacturers would like to prevent as many accidents as possible, so as technology marches forward, cars receive more sophisticated automation features. Some popular features include parking assistance, electronic stability control, blind-spot monitors, collision warning systems, and lane departure warning systems.

Microchip and software maker, Mobileye, based in Jerusalem, has announced that by 2018 its microchips will be able to take over driving if a driver is suddenly incapacitated. Google is still unable to perfect a similar device that was supposed to allow seamless switching between machine and human control of a vehicle in cases of emergency. Therefore, Google is building a fleet of vehicles that receives no driver input during operation. They have announced an automated taxi service wherein the vehicles have a top speed of 25 miles per hour and can be hailed with a mobile phone. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has approved a vehicle-to-vehicle communication protocol using shortwave radio that gives a car a 360-degree view of its surrounding traffic. This will help cars avoid collisions that would be caused by human error. By 2016, General Motors vehicles will have a super cruise control system that keeps cars at the right speed and in the right lane. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 and the BMW X5 also have systems that maintain safe distances behind cars in front, adjusting speed when necessary, and keeping the cars in their lanes.

Most authorities agree that these technological developments will reduce the number of crashes, but no one knows for sure by how much. A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that the “likelihood of a driver dying in a car crash of a late model vehicle fell by more than a third over three years [2011 to 2014], and nine car models had zero fatalities per million registered vehicles.” Eight years ago, there were no car models with a zero fatality rate. However, this drop in fatalities could partly be due to reduced road traffic because of the weakened economy.

In 2013 there were 543 fatal crashes in the U.S. involving drivers who suffered from sudden medical emergencies like seizures, heart attacks, and faints. Another 10,076 were killed in drunken driving accidents. Those deaths would not have happened if a machine had been driving the vehicles. Driverless vehicles could have an effect similar to that of seat belts and airbags. In 1970, before seat belts and airbags, 60,000 people died in traffic accidents. In 2013, that number had fallen to 32,719.

We do not know how many accidents may actually be caused (or made possible) by mechanical control of vehicles. A machine may not recognize an emergency the same way a human driver would. Google has been attempting to teach its programs hand gestures and traffic patterns in order to rectify this failing. In the meanwhile, some analysts predict that the transition period when conventional and self-driven vehicles will share the road could actually be more dangerous because machines will get along with one another well but may struggle to understand human drivers.

Software security is another major concern, especially given that these cars are generally connected to wireless networks and can receive commands remotely. In order to assuage some of those concerns, Google has been designing its cars with redundant systems that kick in if the car’s steering, breaking, or power systems fail.

As computer-operated vehicles continue to take on more driving responsibility, there is a good chance that drivers will increasingly blame any crashes on the vehicles themselves. Product liability law may have to evolve.

The Association of California Insurance Companies is advocating for a law that places all liability for damages caused by the operation of a self-driving car on the vehicle manufacturer. In what appears to be an attempt to share the responsibility, Mercedes-Benz S-class vehicles require you to hold on to the steering wheel before the self-driving features kick in. Tesla requires you to activate the turning signal before its autonomy features begin to work. Eventually, though, the vehicles will completely take over and insurers will have to switch from a business model of charging individuals for insurance plans to a model of charging manufacturers for product liability insurance.

At the moment, most state lawmakers assume that self-driven vehicles are allowed on the roads for testing purposes without any adjustments to state laws. Manufacturers have been testing mostly in Florida, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Michigan, Nevada, California, and Texas. Drivers are required to be present to take over in case the vehicle malfunctions. In states where there are no laws specific to self-driving cars, the general laws requiring a driver to operate a vehicle applies. In California and Nevada, there are explicit laws putting higher standards on drivers of autonomous vehicles. In Florida, there is a higher insurance requirement.

Lately, Google vehicles have come under scrutiny for some minor collisions. In the course of its self-driving car program, its vehicles have been involved in 16 collisions with other vehicles, every single one of them caused by the human-operated vehicle, not the self-driven one. A number of them were instances of human drivers rear-ending the driverless Google car when the driverless car was completely stopped. 

Nonetheless, we already know there will be situations in which a car knows it is about to crash and will be planning the best way to crash. If any of these crashes do not turn out well, the engineers who wrote the code will come under scrutiny. Some analysts predict that once the first driverless cars are involved in high profile fatalities, the technology may hit a snag in public support, even though the overall fatalities are quite likely to have considerably dropped. Our standard for what we consider safe will continue to move as it has since the invention of the motor vehicle.

Experienced car accident attorneys Brill and Rinaldi are ready to help you now and in the future.