Driverless cars: What to watch for

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Lawmakers in various states including Georgia are trying to get their heads around the rapidly accelerating technology involving driverless cars. There are a lot of questions: Who will be responsible in case of accidents? How will they interact with standard cars? Today, we offer three columns written by presenters at the first hearing of the Georgia House study committee on autonomous vehicles. They elaborate on their concerns, and enthusiasm, for what could be breakthrough safety technology. The committee meets again later this month.

Note: There are three columns today.

Commenting is open.

Autonomous vehicles on the horizon

By Bob Dallas

Mention autonomous vehicles, and many conjure up visions of the Jetsons’ vehicle flying the family across town. While the technology for that vision likely remains far in the future, automobile and technology companies likeGoogle are mapping a future where technology assists — and one day takes over — for the attentive driver.

Improved safety is the primary driver behind much of the technology implemented in recent years — anti-lock brakes, stability track control, event data recorders, back-up cameras, lane departure warning, drowsy driver warning and preemptive breaking. Devices can be installed to provide feedback to the driver, parents and insurance companies.

Past safety improvements include safety belts, air bags, steel beam doors, padded panels, crumple zones and tempered glass. Taken together, these factors, along with enhanced safety strategies directed toward driver education, enforcement and emergency medical services, have produced significant declines in crash deaths and serious injuries on our roadways.

Additionally, within the next few years, vehicles will assess their environment and communicate with other vehicles, cloud data bases and the road. And let’s not forget, much of the technology may reside in the smart phones we carry in the vehicle.

While these technological advances are designed to assist the driver and improve safety, they still require an attentive driver in control of the vehicle and therefore responsible, or as lawyers say, “liable,” for the consequences of a crash.

But what happens with an inattentive driver in a truly autonomous vehicle? Does the driver retain the same liability? Or, in the event of a crash, is the manufacturer of the vehicle or the technology liable? And if not them, then who?

As vehicle technology advances and demand for the technology grows, this question of liability will challenge federal regulators and state legislatures. A handful of states have passed laws requiring drivers of truly autonomous vehicles to always be in control, or immediately available to take over control, of the vehicles while in operation. That way, the driver remains liable for the operation of the vehicle. But if we accept the premise that truly autonomous vehicles will one day operate more safely than human-controlled vehicles, is this the correct answer?

It’s an issue policymakers have confronted since the days of “horseless carriages.” With the evolution of vehicle technology and the law, we have seen an apportionment of liability. Thus, the legal system generally looks to see if the driver, vehicle manufacturer or road design is at fault to apportion liability in event of a crash.

Concurrently, since 1966, the U.S. Department of Transportation, through the agency now known as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, sets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that vehicle manufacturers must follow. NHTSA’s goal is to prevent crashes, injuries and deaths on our nation’s roadways. The agency is charged with assessing new vehicle technology and how it interfaces with drivers. Like air bags and back-up cameras, NHTSA may deem some technological advances so beneficial, they become mandated for new vehicles.

Other anticipated benefits of autonomous vehicles include more productive commutes, less congestion and improved air quality. A new class of restricted drivers — seniors unable to drive, and those disabled by medical or physical reasons — will have new transportation options. These benefits have the potential to create tremendous economic benefits.

But will state legislators and federal regulators ever allow truly autonomous vehicles? As more than just safety is anticipated, the market will place tremendous pressure on policymakers to move in that direction. As policymakers know from experience, the law will influence technological advancement — either to encourage or delay it, but rarely to prevent it.

Ironically, if they get it right and the technology becomes successful, it may well be mandated, as has already occurred with innumerable safety advances we now take for granted.

Who knows when, but perhaps one day, we may welcome seeing drivers imitate George Jetson sleeping behind the wheel!

Bob Dallas, an Atlanta attorney, was director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety under Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Many questions, benefits on technology

By Michael Hunter

Like many of you, I am excited about the prospects for self-driving or driverless cars. It seems every day, there is another story about their tremendous potential. I look forward to when I will be able get in my car, tell it to take me to Georgia Tech, and spend the rest of the trip searching the Internet, watching “Game of Thrones,” checking Facebook, taking a nap or maybe even getting some work done. Maybe I will even be able to send my car off to get my groceries and pick up the dry cleaning without me.

I don’t know if this future is 5 or 25 years away, but it certainly seems to be coming.

Skeptics often question if people will be willing to ride in a vehicle that drives itself. I personally doubt this will be a significant issue, particularly for millennials. However, I do believe there are other hurdles in the acceptance of this technology that are not receiving nearly as much attention, but may be more important.

For example, how will human drivers of other vehicles interact with driverless vehicles? The user of a driverless vehicle has made the choice to get into the vehicle. However, if driverless cars are allowed by local laws, other drivers on the road are not being given a choice about interacting with them. I am much more concerned about how these other drivers may alter their behavior when interacting with driverless vehicles, than I am with people being willing to use driverless vehicles.

In this regard, we are about to enter a grand experiment. Today, whether changing lanes, merging into or exiting a freeway, or pulling out of a driveway, drivers are constantly interacting with other drivers. It is fair to say that when engaging in these driving maneuvers, at times, some people can be aggressive. So, what happens when a set of vehicles always gives way when the other vehicle is sufficiently aggressive? Will driverless vehicles enable a form of “bully driving” among the rest of us?

For instance, when traffic is heavy and I need to merge onto I-285, while I am still on the ramp, I pick a target vehicle that I will attempt to merge in front of. If there are driverless cars on the roadway, why would I not pick a driverless car every time? I know if I am sufficiently aggressive, the driverless vehicle’s safety programming will cause it to give way and let me in front. What happens when the three cars behind me on the ramp also take advantage of the same behavior? Suddenly the driverless car — and all the vehicles behind it — are brought to a stop while everyone cuts in front of them.

Would this happen? I don’t know about this exact scenario, but I also don’t believe we should assume drivers will treat driverless cars the same as cars with an actual person driving.

The above is only one of many potential driver behavior issues we will face as driverless cars go from a novelty to an everyday experience. Will driverless cars result in the “hassle” of driving being greatly reduced and unintentionally incentivize significantly more travel by auto? Will pedestrians and cyclists alter their behavior when interacting with driverless cars? Should driverless cars strictly follow traffic law — for example, driving 55 mph on the interstate?

Will infrastructure maintenance costs increase? Will potential congestion improvements on freeways result in congestion increases on surface streets? How does the availability of driverless vehicles transform our transit systems? Will entirely new demands not even being considered today materialize? How will the vehicle ownership model change? Who will pay for any added infrastructure costs related to driverless vehicles?

We could fill pages with questions about the potential pros and cons related to driverless cars. I believe that, while the timeline remains highly uncertain, they are likely an innovation that is unstoppable. I also believe the benefits will be many.

Overall, this technology represents a great opportunity for individuals and society. However, we must not become blind enthusiasts; we have to recognize the potential downsides. If we are proactive today in planning and building our infrastructure and creating legislation with driverless vehicles in mind, we may be able to avoid many of the potential downsides while realizing the many benefits.

Michael Hunter is an associate professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, with a focus on transportation operations and design.

Alter rules of liability

By Yaniv Heled

The most daunting question before the Georgia House committee on autonomous vehicles is probably who is liable if an autonomous car is involved in an accident.

Liability for car accidents in Georgia is based on a “negligence rule.” This means when an accident occurs, the hitting car is not automatically responsible and, to receive compensation, the injured party must show the driver of the hitting car was negligent, and the damages occurred as a result of that negligence. In situations involving a hitting autonomous vehicle, however, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find negligence on the part of the vehicle’s owner or operator.

Unable to recover damages from the owner or operator of the autonomous vehicle, injured parties would be forced to sue the autonomous vehicle’s seller or manufacturer for damages under what is known as a “products liability” cause of action. The injured party would then bear the burden of showing the accident was caused as a result of some defect in the design or manufacturing of the autonomous vehicle.

Such lawsuits, however, are uphill and expensive battles that typically require the involvement of experts. Defending against such lawsuits is likewise burdensome and inevitably would result in the costs of such litigation being rolled over to consumers. This, in turn, would make autonomous vehicles more expensive, perhaps to the point that the technology may become unaffordable or only available in luxury cars — which would be a terrible shame, given the many expected benefits of widespread implementation of this technology.

Instead of going down that path, I suggest we change the liability regime in Georgia, at least with respect to autonomous vehicles, to what is known as a “no fault” rule. Under such a rule, the owner or operator of an autonomous vehicle involved in a car accident would be automatically responsible for any damages the car causes, and there would be no need to establish that he or she was negligent.

The advantages of this course of action are numerous. First, it would save victims of car accidents involving autonomous vehicles the copious amounts of time and money they would need to recover for their damages, not to mention the emotional toll. Second, it would avoid the need to drag manufacturers of autonomous vehicles to court every time an autonomous vehicle is involved in a fender bender. Third, this solution is simple, compatible with Georgia’s car insurance laws and easy to administer and carry out.

A “no fault” rule also would spread the costs of damages caused by autonomous vehicles over time and over a larger group of people, which would lead to lower autonomous vehicle prices and a rapid increase in road safety as the technology becomes commonplace.

In addition to the above recommendation, Georgia’s Legislature and regulators should avoid mistakes made elsewhere and refrain from imposing unnecessary restrictions on autonomous vehicle technology that would hinder its development and implementation.

Yaniv Heled is an assistant professor at Georgia State University College of Law.

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