The road ahead: A look into driverless cars

By Alexander Voudouris | February 21, 2019

With new laws recently passed to finally make a dent in the number of fatalities that result from distracted driving, the idea of passing the wheel to an automated machine in the not-so-distant-future seems more and more attractive.  

 

I recently drove a Tesla, or should I say the Tesla drove me, from one end of Toronto to the other. The car navigated the streets perfectly. In fact, I only touched a control once or twice the entire way. The experience was well-timed as Ontario has recently allowed public road testing of autonomous cars. 

As the Province, cruises into the future, it may also want to beam some headlights on the risks and benefits of potential new legislation. Here are a few to consider:  

Risk 1: Maintaining driving skills 

Most Autonomous cars today, still have a steering wheel in case human intervention is needed. This leads to licensing issues. Currently, the skill level of drivers are checked when they first receive their licence and then not checked again until the driver is in much old in age. This has worked because skills tend to improve the longer the person is driving. As automation advances, however, the driver will gain less experience over time. Will the driver still be equally equipped to take over control of the car in an emergency situation? 

Risk 2: Liability for injuries resulting from accidents 

If the vehicle is essentially in full control, who will be held liable for any resulting injuries or damages in the case of an accident? If there is no steering wheel for a person to take over the car, the manufacturer would have to be held liable, unless the vehicle operated as designed and followed reaction scenarios approved by the government.  

In other words, if the car is programmed to turn into oncoming traffic in order to avoid striking a pedestrian in the vehicle’s lane of travel, and such a program was first approved by a regulator, then perhaps only the pedestrian would, and should, be held liable. 

Most automobile manufacturers plan on introducing fully autonomous vehicles in the next three to five years. Their ability to reach market saturation will need to factor in a) affordability; b) consumer trust; c) regulatory issues; and d) a lack of infrastructure. 

Benefit 1: Less accidents, less injuries, less demand on emergency professionals 

Worldwide, nearly 1.3 million people die in car accident each year, or 3,287 per day. For their families and loved ones, autonomous vehicles cannot arrive fast enough.  If licensing and liability are properly figured out, autonomous vehicles can dramatically reduce accidents.  

Approximately 93 per cent of all car accidents are due to human factors and it is estimated that automated cars will account for approximately 93 per cent fewer accidents, 93 per cent fewer injuries, 93 per cent fewer calls on emergency professionals, ambulances, hospital emergency departments.  

Benefit 2: Wider access to an independent lifestyle 

The ability to come and go at someone’s own schedule is a giant step in gaining, or maintaining, independent living. With a society that is getting older, this will be welcome news to many seniors who fear one day having to give up driving. It can also be a monumental addition in how some people with disabilities find alternative sources of accessible transportation.  

Where innovation intersects with personal injury law 

The nature of personal injury legal work may soon include cases dealing with computer system failures, internet glitches affecting cloud-based operation, or program scenarios that cause unexpected injury.  

Driverless cars will have to be programed for every eventuality. Can a programmer truly program for every possible choice or permutation for all future, unknown situation?  

The scenario most commonly discussed is one where a pedestrian is lying on the road in a one lane tunnel. While this is somewhat unrealistic, it is nevertheless instructive. Does the driverless car run over the pedestrian or turn into the wall of the tunnel injuring, or killing, the driver.  

The moral, ethical and legal implications of these computer programs are endless. Without doubt, they will create new questions and concerns from society, accident victims, governments and the legal field alike.