Driverless Cars, Safety and Accountability

Posted by Bradley Thayer | Sep 20, 2015 | 0 Comments

With technology developing at its current rate, life gets more like an episode of the Jetsons with every passing year. One of the most obvious of recent advances is the driverless car. The new autonomous cars may usher in a new, safer mode of transport but they will also bring with them new challenges and questions regarding accountability when collisions do inevitably occur.

Although most famously in development by Google, the driverless car is a vision that took root back in the early 90's, before Google had even launched its ubiquitous search engine. By September 2014, however, all eyes were on Google's driverless car initiative. At that time it looked like we may have a little longer to come to terms with what a world of autonomous cars might look like.

Back then (all of a year ago),  prototype cars had several glaring shortcomings. Not least of which was their inability to discern the density of obstacles in their path and deal with the unexpected. They were as likely to swerve to avoid hitting a ball of rolled up paper as they were to serve to avoid a rock. They also couldn't spot potholes and had not been tested in extreme weather conditions.

Chris Urmson, director of Google's autonomous car team, acknowledged the many challenges they were dealing with in an article in the MIT Technology Review but, he said, overcoming them was going to happen more quickly than people might think. His personal deadline, was to have driverless cars become a reality on our roads within the next five years – around about the time his own 11 year old son turns 16.

Driverless Cars and Safety

Given the horrifying numbers of teenagers that are killed on our roads every year – approximately seven kids between the ages of 16 and 19 die every single day from injuries sustained in a car accident – Urmson's vision must be music to many parent's ears.

Certainly Google is vocal about the safety of their driverless car technology and many of the issues that were highlighted in that MIT Technology Review article have already been resolved. In a Ted talk titled, How a driverless car sees the road, Urmson delighted the audience with a video showing  autonomous cars gracefully handling many unexpected situations including:

  • a woman in an electric wheelchair chasing a duck in circles on the road
  • a bird flying across in front of the car
  • a person jumping out a truck in front of the car
  • late turning car in front

Among all the scenarios shown that day, Chris Urmson highlighted one that is close to the heart of our own Scott Edwards. Scott is a keen cyclist and vocal advocate for cycling safety.

Car accidents involving cyclists are often due to the poor visibility of the much smaller cycle. The video showed that thanks to laser data, the driverless car ‘sees' the cyclist before it would be possible for any human driver to do so. While the Google prototype anticipated that the cyclist was going to continue across the intersection, the human drivers started to pull forward. A nasty accident between  standard driver and cyclist was avoided only because of the cyclist's quick reactions.

Scott comments:

Any technology that makes the roads safer for all users is a good thing. As a personal injury lawyer, nothing would make me happier than never to have to take on another wrongful death or injury case caused by a careless driver neglecting to check for a cyclist in his blind spot.

Given Urmson's impressive Ted talk, it might come as a surprise to find out that Google's fleet of autonomous test cars has been involved in a rash of bumps and fender benders recently. Ironically, all of the accidents, have been attributed to human error.  The latest of these occurred this July, when a distracted driver rear-ended a Lexus loaded with Google's self drive technology injuring three Google employees in the process.

Auto Insurance and Driverless Cars

Interestingly, a report from KPMG backs Google's safety assertions and predicts a sea change within the automobile insurance industry:

A continual decline in the frequency of accidents will drive a drop in industry loss costs and subsequently premium, with a precipitous fall starting as the car stock begins to convert. The mix of insurance will also likely change, as commercial and product liability lines expand. Within 25 years, our models suggest a scenario where the personal automobile insurance sector could shrink to less than 40 percent of its current size.

However, there are a few nay-sayers who remain less than convinced.  In a recent article titled What Google didn't say about its self-driving cars, Jon Healey of the Los Angeles Times pointed out that while Chris Urmson was quick to deflect the blame for any of the accidents from the driverless cars and onto human drivers, he was less forthcoming about the actual cause of these accidents.

For example, he asks, did the accidents occur while the cars were in self driving mode or  being manually operated and have these collisions alerted Google to any potential weakness in design or operation that will be fixed in a future software update?

We don't know whether the human driver inside Google's cars ever had to take control to avert an accident. And Urmson provided no clues whether the accidents were correlated with particular traffic conditions — say, for example, urban rush hours.

Anyone who has been following recent car recalls is aware that current automotive technology is far from flawless, however, Healey states that advocates of self-driving cars have to convince safety authorities that their technology can handle everything that unpredictable human drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians can throw at it, and do so as reliably as the mechanical systems on the average car. What will happen, he asks, when a driverless car is involved in an accident?

In fact, governments may have less tolerance for software bugs than they do for tires that go flat and accelerator pedals that get stuck on floor mats. And they have to come up with an acceptable framework for deciding who's at fault when there's a wreck caused by an autonomous vehicle — the software developer, the maker of the sensors and radar systems, the owner of the car or the passenger that didn't seize control in time to avert the collision.

About the Author

Bradley Thayer

Brad Thayer is a partner at the Schauermann Thayer firm. Brad is licensed in both Oregon and Washington. He has been practicing law since 2015. He was presented the 2018 Rising Star Award by the Clark County Bar Association. Brad's practice focuses on automobile collision, motorcycle, bicycle, pedestrian injury, dog bite, and myriad other types of injury and insurance cases. During his free time, Brad enjoys following the Portland Trail Blazers, playing basketball, going to concerts, and playing the drums. He especially enjoys hiking in the Columbia River Gorge and exploring other Northwest wonders.


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