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Nation Focuses in on Driverless Vehicle Technology After Fatal Pedestrian Accident Involving Self-Driving Uber Car

Nation Focuses in on Driverless Vehicle Technology After Fatal Pedestrian Accident Involving Self-Driving Uber Car

On Sunday evening March 18, 2017, a self-driving car piloted by Uber Technologies Inc. struck and killed a woman walking across an Arizona road in what may be the first pedestrian fatality associated with driverless vehicles. While the crash is still under investigation, authorities have stated that the 49-year-old victim was struck by a test vehicle operating in autonomous mode. Although there was a “safety driver” in the vehicle at the time, self-driving technology was handling all aspects of the vehicle’s movement, and the driver did not intervene. Shortly after the crash, Uber announced that it will halt driverless vehicle projects in Arizona, as well as in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto.

Uber’s fatal pedestrian accident is a terrible tragedy for all involved, and one that raises many important questions and concerns regarding self-driving vehicles, their introduction to our roadways, and how to best protect the public.

Safety & Liability in a New Age of Driverless Cars

Driverless technology is slated as the future of American roadways, as well as the future of commercial trucking and product shipping. While amazing developments have been made, that advanced technology also introduces a number of important questions, especially in relation to public safety and liability in car accidents – questions that will be spotlighted in the months following Sunday’s crash.

Below, we discuss some of the major concerns created by the recent Uber pedestrian crash and driverless vehicle technology:

  • Technology tested on public roads – The self-driving vehicle involved in Sunday’s fatal accident was part of a larger project organized by Uber, which has been testing driverless cars and commercial trucks on public roadways across the country. Uber is among several companies testing driverless vehicles in a public setting, and many safety advocates have expressed concerns about whether the technology is truly ready to be implemented on our roads, rather than tested thoroughly in controlled environments, closed roads, or roadways with minimal auto, bicycle, or pedestrian traffic. The recent crash and Uber’s decision to pause testing of their vehicles will likely renew the conversation over whether wide-scale testing should be allowed on public roads, and if so, how and with what restrictions.
  • A lack of regulations – Uber’s self-driving vehicles, in addition to those developed by other companies, have hit the roadways in many cities across the country. However, it is in Arizona, where the crash took place, where driverless vehicles have found their most positive welcoming, even as other states like California have taken a tougher stance on issuing permits to such vehicles for testing or commercial purposes. Unfortunately, that means there has been little done to pass comprehensive laws and regulations for the many driverless vehicles being tested and used on Arizona roadways. In fact, some advocates have stated that the virtual lack of any regulations at all have made places like Arizona the “wild west” for testing driverless technology. In the wake of the crash, states across the country may begin to more closely evaluate how to regulate these vehicles, and focus on passing crucial laws and safety protections before letting driverless cars back on the road.
  • Liability in accidents – In addition to a lack of regulations, there are also few laws and little case law regarding issues like fault and liability in auto accidents involving self-driving cars. The recent crash is a reminder that advanced technologies are not infallible, that we still don’t know how good or bad driverless technology truly is, and that our laws need to address who can be held liable, and how, when self-driving cars cause or contribute to accidents that result in injuries or death. If public citizens are to accept and bear the risks that come with allowing driverless technology on public roads, there need to be measures in place that ensure the rights of injured victims when things don’t go as planned.
  • “Safety driver” technicians – Although the vehicle involved in Sunday’s accident was being operated autonomously, there was a “safety driver” present in the vehicle. These safety drivers function more like technicians in that they handle certain tasks driverless cars can’t, such as driving an autonomous commercial truck short distances to a loading dock, or taking over the controls when emergency situations arise. According to initial reports, however, the safety driver did not intervene prior to the vehicle striking the pedestrian. This reintroduces concerns over ensuring that driverless technology is capable of handling all tasks associated with operating a vehicle, as humans are naturally inclined to become complacent, less effective, and inattentive when computers handle their tasks. For this reason, experts suggest that we can’t trust humans to intervene and prevent crashes, and must ensure technologies powering self-driving cars are developed in a way to handle critical safety issues on their own.
  • Decisions of life and death – Any “smart” technology or form of artificial intelligence can introduce questions of ethics and morality, and that is especially true of robot cars. Although humans may not always be able to make the most appropriate decisions in situations where collisions, property damage, injuries, and / or death may be inevitable, they are tasked with programming self-driving cars to handle those types of situations. This means determining whether our society and our lawmakers can agree on how these technologies should address ethical dilemmas that involve hypothetical decisions between the lesser of two evils, or situations where the least “immoral” decision should be chosen. This can take the form of deciding whether or not to swerve and cause property damage rather than hit a dog and likely cause injury, or decisions involving whether or not vehicles should avoid near-certain death of a pedestrian in favor of causing an accident where multiple vehicle occupants can potentially suffer serious injuries. These are by no means easy problems to solve, but in light of the recent crash, more conversations should be had, as well as potential laws and regulations that address them.

Sunday’s fatal pedestrian accident is still under investigation, but it has already succeeded in targeting our national focus squarely on driverless technology, its development and use on public roads, and the many issues developers, our society, and our laws must address before they become a constant presence in our lives. As a personal injury law firm that has served victims and families throughout Los Angeles and Southern California for decades, we at Biren Law Group have seen how new technologies can revolutionize our culture, as well as how they create new questions that must be addressed, particularly in terms of safety, liability, and the rights of those who suffer harm.

Ultimately, there is no denying self-driving vehicles have the potential to reduce risks associated with driver error and negligence – robots don’t drink and drive or text message behind the wheel. However, that new technology still poses risks of its own, and as with any new advancements, those risks need to be carefully explored, evaluated, and managed before new products are made widely available to the public. The desire to profit or rapidly introduce new technology should never come at the expense of public safety. It’s the same argument we have raised in many cases throughout the years, and one we will likely continue to raise in our legal battles to ensure accountability and protect the rights of victims.

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