The idea of self-driving cars has been around for ages, making an appearance in Hollywood from films such as “The Car” released in the 70s all the way to recent films such as “Bumblebee” which was released just last year. Humanity and our imagination has come a long way and more often than not, technology has its way of surprising us and catching us off guard, despite innovators having planted the idea decades ago. Yet, it still took the world by storm when the idea was resuscitated and brought to fruition in recent years thanks to the technology and infrastructure available today. While it is all fun on the big screen, there are certain things to consider off-screen such as: ‘who will be liable in the event of an accident?’ and giant lawsuits involving the government, motor lawyers and millions of dollars.
From its conception until today, there has been a few instances of fatalities involved in automated driving. The latest being Tesla, which, has just been involved in a second fatal crash with its autopilot function. The car crashed into a divider and the driver died after arriving at the airport. He was testing the autopilot function when the accident happened and Tesla reported that the data collected from the car showed that the driver had “five seconds, and 150 meters of unobstructed view of the concrete barrier, before the crash”. The assistive feature is supposed to alert the driver and shut down the car if the driver does not keep his hands on the wheel for more than five seconds. The driver’s hands were “not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the impact” and according to further reports, he was given multiple warnings to keep his hands on the wheel. Tesla then continued to say that their autopilot function is “driver assistance tool, not a replacement, and that they retain responsibility for driving safely”. Who is to be blamed for this incident? The car, the company or the driver? Had there been another person involved in the accident, who would bear the brunt of the costs? Would the driver, or the company of the car for creating what is essentially a faulty safety system?
Regardless of the risks involved, lawmakers are worryingly optimistic regarding the self-driving technology and are racing to pass the bill to make autonomous vehicles legal. Congress is rushing to pass a law for autonomous vehicles to hit the roads because they would have to start from scratch otherwise, by the end of this year. The third American state to allow for driverless cars is Florida and cars with no drivers behind the wheel completely aligns with the law. This legislation might have come far too soon as the only competent self-driving car company that is currently offering fully-functioning autonomous taxis is Waymo and even they are not giving up on their safety drivers as their vehicles still require guidance in certain situations. Humans are not replaceable at this stage but that has not stopped other countries from jumping on the bandwagon.
Japan to South Africa, the future of self-driving cars seem to be imminent. However, there are certain restrictions that UK has imposed on the autonomous vehicles stating that if the vehicles get into an accident, the “liability shall lie with the insurer” and in the event that it is not insured, the owner of the car is liable, ignoring the functions of a self driving assistance. This is a good move for the near future as the culture of owning one’s own vehicle is still rampant. The law will have to change to include commercial bound cars in the future as major corporations such as Uber is looking to make privately owned cars a thing of the past with their driverless initiative.
The idea is to encourage ride-sharing in an attempt to curb the environment-killing emissions and also reduce traffic congestion. Uber’s vision packed a lot of promise, but the law on autonomous vehicles has not allowed them to realize their dreams of a better tomorrow where there would be a lot less traffic and traffic-related fatalities.
No doubt, having autonomous vehicles on the road will benefit civilization more than it would harm it. From giving commuters countless hours of freedom from driving, taking the financial strain of purchasing a new car to ensuring less traffic deaths which, according to Forbes, “nearly 1.3 million people die in traffic fatalities each year— 94% of these deaths are the result of human error”. Society remains hopeful that we will be able to overcome these challenges. After all, the elevator completely changed the way humans moved in a building, trains allowed commuters to travel distances in a short time, how is that any different from the envisioned future of automated vehicles?