What We Now Know About Self-Driving Cars

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By Marcus Fernandez

Imagine reading a book while a self-driving car effortlessly navigates busy Tampa streets—it’s closer to reality than you’d imagine. Tesla, Google, and Uber are only a few corporations heavily invested in and committed to developing autonomous vehicles. Cars and trucks capable of driving without a driver controlling them are already on the roads in many cities.

As companies push for driverless vehicles on American roads, they raise safety and legal concerns. This blog post looks at where self-driving technology is today, where it’s heading, and what legal implications you can expect.

Driverless cars are coming – They’re not here yet!

Your car may be equipped with technology to automatically apply the brakes in an emergency or steer back into its lane. This may seem like a self-driving car, but it is not. There is a difference between driver-assist technology in cars currently sold to the public and a genuinely self-driving car that may be years from going into general production.

Driverless cars have been in development by Google and other companies for almost two decades. As of right now, you can’t walk into a car dealership and buy one. Cars capable of driving and navigating without assistance from a human are still in the testing stages. Unfortunately, safety issues that delay their availability to consumers continue to arise.

Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into self-driving taxis produced by a subsidiary of General Motors. The NHTSA responded to reports of the cars stopping abruptly and unexpectedly. 

The NHTSA investigation concluded that the cars made inaccurate predictions of the movement of other vehicles. This caused more accidents and near-accidents. The company recalled some cars and performed a software update on all vehicles to correct the problem.

Driverless cars eliminate a common cause of car accidents – human behavior. The NHTSA reports that 45% of fatal accidents are by drivers engaging in risky behavior, including: 

  • Speeding
  • Distracted driving
  • Driving while impaired by alcohol
  • Aggressive driving

Driverless vehicles are expected to reduce accidents by eliminating human driver behavior. However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety projects that self-driving vehicles will only prevent about one-third of accidents unless programmed to prioritize safety over speed and convenience. In other words, prioritizing quickly getting you to your destination may need to give way to slower speeds and safer routes to bring the accident rate closer to zero. 

What is a self-driving car?

A genuinely self-driving car operates without any intervention from a person. The vehicle’s technology allows it to select a route and handle all driving tasks to reach its destination. Anyone occupying an autonomous car does so as a passenger, not a driver or standby driver.

Cars currently available for sale do not meet the criteria for classification as self-driving or autonomous vehicles developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers. The SAE classifies automation technology in a car using the following five levels:

  • Level Zero — Momentary Driver Assistance: Cars at this level of automation may have assistive technology, such as driver warnings for lane departure and forward collision, but they rely on complete driver engagement to brake, control speed, and steer. 
  • Level One – Driver Assistance: Cars at this level have systems, such as adaptive cruise control and lane departure assistance, that drivers engage to assist with specific functions, but a person drives the car. 
  • Level Two – Additional Assistance: Installed technology continuously monitors vehicle operation and can steer, brake, and accelerate. However, the systems only assist, but not replace, a driver.
  • Level Three – Conditional Automation: Drivers take on a standby role with installed technology handling the driving under precisely defined conditions. A driver takes over operation when the vehicle encounters a situation it is not programmed to handle. 
  • Level Four – High Automation: A car’s occupants become passengers at this level with the technology controlling its operation. However, level four automation programs prevent vehicle use outside a designated service area.
  • Level Five – Full Automation: Level five cars are fully autonomous and capable of operating on all roads without limitation on service areas or conditions. 

You may encounter level three, four, or five cars being tested on public streets in some parts of the country, but they are currently unavailable for sale to consumers.

Laws authorizing self-driving cars in Florida raise liability issues

As companies push to perfect the technology to allow them to sell self-driving cars to the public, Florida paved the way for their eventual use in the Sunshine State with new laws, including: 

  • Legalization of autonomous vehicles for use on state roads.
  • Recognition of the absence of a human driver and distinguishing self-driving vehicles from cars equipped with driver assistance technology.
  • Does not require the presence of a licensed driver for self-driving cars.
  • Deems an automated driving system instead of a human driver as the operator of a self-driving car. 

Designating an automated driving system as a car operator instead of a traditional driver raises liability issues. Who does someone injured in a car accident sue for damages?

Usually, a person injured in a car accident must prove that another person was negligent to prove a compensation claim. If you have an accident caused by a self-driving car, there is no driver to hold responsible. Florida law makes the automated driving system the operator.

The first step in identifying the party at fault in causing a car accident involving self-driving vehicles is to determine the cause of the crash. A driver may be liable when operating a car designated as levels zero through 3 in the SAE autonomy classification system if there is evidence of operator negligence.

It gets more complicated with self-driving cars with level 4 or 5 autonomy that operate without an active or standby driver. Driver negligence may not be a factor in a self-driving car accident. The focus may turn to the vehicle manufacturer. 

Companies that sell driverless vehicles may bear responsibility if software malfunctions or design defects cause accidents resulting in injuries. The investigation into the cause of an accident involving a self-driving vehicle is essential to determine how it occurred and the party or parties responsible for it.

Contact a Tampa car accident law firm

When a car accident leaves you injured and needing outstanding legal representation from an experienced Tampa personal injury lawyer, contact KFB Law. We strive for fair compensation, regardless of the case or vehicle complexity. Contact KFB Law today for a free consultation.