The Excitement and Danger of Autonomous Vehicles

Tyler Hartney, MJLST Staffer

“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.”

Ok. Sorry Doc. Brown, but vehicular technology is not quite to where Back to the Future thought it would be in 2017; but, there are a substantial amount of companies making investments into autonomous vehicles. Ford invested $1 billion to acquire an artificial intelligence startup company that had been founded by engineers previously employed by Google and Uber with the intent to develop self-driving vehicles. Tesla already has an autopilot feature in all of its vehicles. Tesla includes a warning on its website that the use of the Self-Driving functionality maybe limited depending on regulations that vary by jurisdiction.

To grasp an understanding of what many of the experts are saying in this field, one must be familiar with the six levels of autonomy:

  1. No autonomy
  2. Driver assistance level – most functions still controlled by human driver
  3. At least one driver assistance system – cruise control or lane monitoring
  4. Critical safety features – shifts emergency safety features such as accident awareness from vehicle to human
  5. Fully autonomous – designed for the vehicle to perform all critical safety features and monitor road and traffic conditions
  6. Human like autonomy – fully capable of autonomy even in extreme environments such as off-road driving

The societal benefits could be vast. With level 4 autonomy on household vehicles, parents and siblings need not worry about driving the kids to soccer practice because the car is fully capable of doing it for them. Additionally, the ridesharing economy, which has grown incredibly fast over the past few years, would likely see a drastic shift away from human drivers. Companies have already begun to make vehicles for the purpose of clean energy ride sharing using autonomous vehicles such as Ollie. Ollie is an electric and 3D printed bus that can be summoned by those in need of a ride in a similar fashion to Uber.

While this self-driving vehicle technology is exciting, are we really there yet? Last June, a fatal car accident occurred involving a Tesla using its autopilot function. The driver in this case had previously touted his car saving him from an accident; he was very confident in the ability of his vehicle. It was later reported by a witness that there was a portable DVD player in the car that was found playing Harry Potter at the time of the accident. If this witness is correct, the driver of the vehicle violated the Tesla disclaimer that reads the autopilot feature “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times.” Some experts argue these manufacturers have to be more upfront about the limitations of their autopilot feature and how drivers should be cautious in the use of this advanced technology. It is no question that the driver of the Tesla (if you can call him that?) was reckless in the use of this technology. But what about the liability of the vehicle manufacturer?

The deceased’s family hired a product defect litigation law firm to conduct an investigation in conjunction with the federal government’s investigation. The goal of these investigations was to determine if Tesla is at fault for the vehicle’s autopilot feature failing to stop. Recently, news broke that the government investigation concluded that no recall must be made for the Tesla vehicles nor did the government levy any fines to the automaker. The government reported that the autopilot feature was not defective at the time of the crash because it was built to protect the driver from rear-end collisions (the man’s car rear-ended a truck) and also gave notice to consumers that the driver must remain fully attentive to the operation of the vehicle.

Legally, it appears that plaintiffs won’t likely have much luck in suits against Tesla in cases like this. The company requires purchasers to sign a contract stating the autopilot function is not to be considered self-driving and that they are aware they will have to remain attentive and keep their hands on the wheel at all times. However, Tesla operates on an interesting structure where purchasers buy directly from the manufacturer which may give them more of the ability to engage in these types of contracts with their consumers. Other automobile manufacturers may have a more difficult time maneuvering around liability for accidents that occur when the vehicle is driving itself. Car companies are going to have to ensure they provide repeated reminders to consumers that, until technology is tested and confidence in the feature is significantly higher, that the autopilot features are in the beta-testing mode and driver attention and intervention is still required.