Self-Driving Cars: On Your Road Today

What may have once been the subject of futuristic sci-fi movies is becoming a real possibility. The stepping stones to fully automated vehicles are present on our roads today. If you catch a glance of a driver sleeping behind the wheel or casually reading the paper as both your vehicles are moving on the road, it can be panic-inducing. Incidents like this are occurring increasingly, and accidents involving so-called self-driving vehicles are becoming more frequent.

Currently, there are no vehicles for sale to consumers in the U.S. legally allowing a driver to check out in this manner while on the roadways. However, the rapidly advancing technologies of self-driving cars are giving more people a false sense of security and trust in them, which can create deadly consequences for drivers, other drivers, and passengers traveling near them.

The Rising Popularity of Autonomous Vehicles

For decades self-driving cars have been on the drawing board, but in recent times more and more self-driving features and technologies have made the possibility more of a reality. The leading innovator in vehicle automation is Tesla, with rising demand for their vehicles and consumers looking to buy one of them commonly facing lengthy wait lists. The appeal of their electric self-driving cars is drawing consumers’ attention worldwide, and there seems to be no slowing down soon.

However, while Tesla may be the most popular, it is not the only company looking to advance the self-driving features offered on its line of vehicles. Major automakers such as Mercedes, BMW, Kia, Hyundai, Ford, and Audi are just a handful of companies working on their offerings for vehicle automation.

What Are the Capabilities of Self-Driving Cars on the Road Today?

Self-driving cars can mean many things, and the technology currently can break up into six different levels of automation. While we are not yet at the point where a consumer can purchase a vehicle that fully automates its functioning and operation on the road, we are nearing that threshold.

At the moment, most vehicles, including Tesla, that claim self-driving cars are, in fact, selling vehicles that assist drivers but don’t drive for them. The caveat and safety warning to many vehicle owners with some of these features is that a driver must always be present and alert to intervene if a problem or obstacle should occur while the vehicle is driving.

Self-driving capabilities currently on the market include:

  • Hands-free steering
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Automatic emergency braking
  • Autopilot
  • Lane assist
  • Assistive steering
  • Active parking assist

Are Fully Autonomous Vehicles on the Horizon?

There are self-driving cars actively tested on the roads in our communities by tech companies every day. While we are still a ways away from fully autonomous vehicles operating on our roadways, many companies are working on the development of these vehicles and hoping to make them readily available to consumers in the next few years.

What Dangers Do Self-Driving Vehicles Pose to the Public?

Self-driving cars’ biggest draw and appeal is the notion that they make roads safer. The argument is that more automation means there is less of a chance for cars to crash. It is possible that in a world where fully automated autonomous cars are the only cars used on the road, the frequency and severity of accidents could be significantly less.

However, this is not the world we live in. Self-driving cars must share the road with other vehicles operated by drivers. Drivers are unpredictable and can cause obstacles and challenges to the actions and reactions of self-driving cars traveling near them.

Currently, the autonomy of self-driving cars is not at the highest level. Drivers must still remain engaged and behind the wheel to ensure the safety of all traveling on the roadways. Unfortunately, the technology behind self-driving features is far from perfect.

News stories covering motor vehicle accidents involving vehicles with the features are becoming more frequent, and that is because the more of these vehicles that are on the road, the more accidents that are likely to occur involving one. Self-driving cars and self-driving features can pose a danger to others on the roads, particularly when used improperly.

Inattentive Drivers

Unfortunately, many drivers use vehicles’ autopilot features against the auto manufacturer’s recommendations. For example, many vehicles, such as the Tesla, have built-in safety mechanisms that require a driver to touch or hold their steering wheel when autopilot is on. Some drivers, however, have found a way around this and may fall asleep or distract themselves with other activities when they should be attentive to the traffic around them and what their vehicle is doing.

High Risk of Fire or Explosion

Electric vehicles that use lithium-ion batteries are at a high risk of explosion or fire when an accident occurs. Although many electric vehicles do not use highly flammable substances such as gasoline on board, the presence of these dangerous batteries makes them just as if not more hazardous when there is an impact with another vehicle or object on the road.

In some instances, the explosion and subsequent fire may not even occur at the scene of the crash, and there are reports of spontaneous combustion days after damage to the vehicle, which can endanger those in the area, wherever the vehicle might be.

Potential Cybersecurity Concerns

Many may not at first consider a risk that can be a real threat to the safety of self-driving vehicles and others on the roadways around them is that these vehicles are hackable. While there are already reports of hackers gaining access to these types of vehicles to steal them, the potential hacking of the vehicle’s internal systems for more sinister reasons is a real concern and threat.

If a hacker can gain access to the vehicle’s computer and functions, they could, in effect, take control of the vehicle. Shutting down its functions remotely or controlling where it goes and what it does on the road is risking the life of occupants and others in the vicinity of the vehicle.

Failure to Account for All Possibilities

While artificial intelligence technology that makes self-driving cars possible is rapidly making strides, it is not perfect. It leaves significant room for errors that can result in road accidents. For example, the software used by self-driving cars could run into problems when something unexpected or unusual happens on the roadways. This can cause the vehicle to react unpredictable or unsafely and crash into other cars near them.

It is Not Just Passenger Vehicles That Are Self-Driving

With more and more self-driving features becoming available and more companies vying to produce passenger vehicles with these capabilities, there are also other types of transportation industries that want to make the transition to less of a need for drivers, such as the trucking industry. In addition, several companies are currently investing in developing self-driving technology and functionalities for large trucks such as semis and 18-wheelers.

The potential dangers that an autonomous commercial truck with heavy cargo could pose to the public on the road pales in comparison to the dangers of one small passenger vehicle. Testing of these vehicles is already underway, and many proponents are touting the future of trucking as becoming predominantly driverless.

Laws Are Lagging Behind the Technological Advances

There is also a lack of laws over this industry to further exacerbate the challenges that self-driving cars and accidents can create on the road. Autonomous technology continues to move quickly, but the laws that should oversee and regulate this new territory are lagging behind the advances. While some states have taken steps to introduce legislation regarding the safety and use of autonomous vehicles on open roads, others have taken no action regarding the matter.

How Do You Know if Automated Vehicle Testing Occurs Near You?

There are many popular self-driving vehicles that most people are aware of and can easily identify, such as Tesla. However, these are only the vehicles currently on the market to consumers. Many more autonomous vehicles are in testing stages across the country and could be in your community right now.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has an AV test tracking tool available to the public that can show you what types of automated vehicles are in your communities and where they are. Just a quick glance will reveal passenger vehicles, buses, shuttles and trucks all currently on the streets of communities and neighborhoods across the U.S.

What Happens if You Are in an Accident With a Self-Driving Car?

The question that comes up often is who may be at fault in an accident involving a self-driving car, whether it is a passenger vehicle or a vehicle in testing on the roads. Due to the nature of automation at the moment, most vehicles capable of automation still require that a driver be present to intervene; if necessary, in some instances, the companies testing higher levels of automation will refer to this person as a safety operator.

Therefore, if an accident happens, the person responsible for operating or overseeing the operation of the vehicle is likely still responsible when and if something goes wrong. While a driver may try to argue that they were not “driving,” but the car was driving on its own, they are still in control of the vehicle and have the ability to intervene, if necessary, when danger approaches.

Who Could You Hold Liable for Your Losses in a Self-Driving Car Accident?

Liability for a self-driving car accident can be tricky depending on how and why the accident happens. For example, suppose the accident occurs due to the negligence of the car operator, such as sleeping behind the wheel or failing to properly engage the vehicle’s features. In that case, liability will likely fall on the car’s driver. However, if an accident happens because of a self-driving vehicle’s malfunction, the question of liability may be more complex.

Parties that could be liable for an accident involving an autonomous vehicle include:

  • The driver. Ultimately, the driver is responsible for the vehicle they are operating. If the failures on the driver’s part caused an accident, they are likely at fault and can be responsible for the damages to a victim, including their injuries and other losses.
  • The vehicle owner. In instances where the self-driving vehicle in an accident was engaging in commercial activities or undergoing testing at the time of the crash, the driver, along with the company that owns the vehicle, could be liable for the damage that occurs.
  • The vehicle manufacturer. Many unexpected events can happen with a self-driving car operated by a computer system. For example, suppose the accident results from a defect or malfunction related to the vehicle itself or its software. In that case, a manufacturer might be liable for the subsequent accident damages that occur to the occupants of the self-driving vehicle and others involved in the accident.

How Will an Insurance Company Handle a Self-Driving Car Accident Claim?

As vehicles become more automated, it is not yet known how that may affect the motor vehicle insurance industry and their fault determinations in an accident. One thing remains certain, insurance companies will continue to fight to protect their bottom line and will make every effort to deny liability when possible and reduce payouts to victims if and when they can.

Should You Hire a Lawyer to Represent You for an Accident Involving an Autonomous Vehicle?

You should contact an attorney whenever you are a car accident victim. However, if you are in an accident involving a self-driving car, it should be at the top of your priority list. Self-driving cars are relatively new territory for victims of accidents and insurers.

The laws can be murky, and liability may be complex depending on an accident’s facts involving a self-driving vehicle. A car accident attorney can help you protect your rights and fight for the compensation you need for your losses against any of the parties that could be liable for the collision involving a self-driving vehicle.

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