Self Driving Cars: How Safe Are They Really?

Self Driving Cars: How Safe Are They Really?

For many years now, multiple automotive and technology companies have been working in order to bring about the next revolution in transportation and change how people get around. Many believe that the autonomous vehicle is the next advance in technology — essentially, cars that operate themselves without the help of a driver. Due to the high safety stakes for everyone using the roadways, many states have taken unique approaches when asked by developers of self-driving vehicle technology to allow testing of these cars within their borders. Some states require that autonomous cars must follow a host of safety regulations in order to be allowed on the road, while some states have attempted to court technology manufacturers by offering fewer restrictions. After many reports of deadly accidents, it remains unknown how the United States will deal with autonomous vehicle testing. 

A Tragic Auto-Pilot Accident

On the night of Sunday, March 18th, in 2018, a 49-year-old woman in Arizona was struck by a test vehicle developed by Uber. At the time of the crash, the vehicle had a human operator behind the wheel, but it was functioning as a fully autonomous vehicle when it struck Elaine Herzberg at around 10 p.m. Herzberg was transported to a hospital where she was later pronounced dead. In reaction to this deadly accident, Uber stopped its autonomous vehicle texting as it tried to evaluate what exactly went wrong to cause the crash. 

This accident represents the first deadly pedestrian crash in connection with an autonomous vehicle, but it raises new fears in the minds of many road users that are more than familiar. The AAA conducted a study back in 2017 that attempted to provide an in-depth picture of the public’s concerns around the new technology. The study showed that 85 percent of baby boomer respondents and 72 percent of millennials claimed that they were too afraid to travel in a self-driving vehicle. This perspective is certainly understandable due to the experimental nature of most autonomous vehicles. Even the most common context for similar technology, the auto-pilot featured in many commercial aircraft, has a human pilot backing it up and who is ready to take over if needed. In contrast, the ultimate goal of autonomous vehicles is to make them completely operational without human input. It’s only natural to ask how safe this technology really is, especially in the aftermath of a tragedy like the death of Elaine Herzberg. 

The Technology Is Still Developing

Technology companies who are developing autonomous cars would like to remind us that human drivers have been responsible for many pedestrian deaths since the creation of the automobile. Even if the self-driving vehicle hasn’t been perfected, they could still potentially save lives if they are better drivers than humans overall. In a situation like the tragic Arizona crash, where reports indicated that the pedestrian was crossing outside of a crosswalk at night, it’s difficult to be certain how human drivers would have been able to spot the victim in time to avoid the accident. However, the questions remain: has autonomous driving technology reached that point yet, and if it hasn’t, how long will it take, and how can we minimize the risk to other road users while the technology is being developed? 

The simple answer would seem to be that autonomous vehicles should be limited to test courses until the technology has been further developed. There are extensive test courses, like the 32-acre Mcity Facility at the University of Michigan, but industry experts claim that even these facilities can only provide so much real-world training and are imperfect simulations of what would happen out on the road. Because so much of the software involved in self-driving cars requires “learning” from observations and experiences, the technology cannot be fully developed in a controlled setting. 

How Is Liability Determined?

Self Driving Cars: How Safe Are They Really?As of now, the question of liability in the deadly Arizona crash is still looming. The car was in autonomous mode when Herzberg was struck, but the human operator was in the car at the time of the accident. Further investigation could find if the backup driver could have — and should have — reasonably intervened to avoid the collision and if a malfunction in the car’s cameras or other sensors prevented it from detecting the pedestrian. If a malfunction occurred, some liability could fall on the inspection teams that approved the car for use on the road. Software malfunctions are harder to pinpoint due to the nature of the adaptive “learning” technology because the program code is much more complex and organic than a typical computer program. 

Until the specific factors that led to the crash are discovered, Uber is unlikely to continue field tests for other autonomous cars. However, the broader push to refine and develop autonomous vehicle technology will nearly certainly be halted after this tragedy. A more likely outcome is a change in the regulations controlling the testing of self-driving vehicle technology, but changes impacting the whole of the industry are unlikely unless federal law implements more universal standards. 

If you’ve been injured in a serious crash, you should contact a qualified New Jersey car crash attorney today. 

Vehicle Crashes in New Jersey

Advocates for self-driving cars claim that, down the road, they will make the roads safer. However, at this time, the technology is far from perfect, and they have already caused fatal collisions. The novel nature of this technology means that liability isn’t straightforward, either. 

The exact facts on self-driving car collisions aren’t quite in, but there are some things are known. 56 percent of drivers claim they’d feel unsafe traveling in an autonomous vehicle. The most common self-driving car crash is rear-ending other vehicles. 

If you’ve been injured by a vehicle, you should contact a New Jersey car crash attorney. Brady, Brady, & Reilly, LLC has the experience and resources to diligently represent your case. Give us a call at (201) 997- 0030 to discuss your case today.