The Dilemma of the ‘Driverless’ Automobile

Photo credit: narvikk via istockphoto.com

The Dilemma of the ‘Driverless’ Automobile

Two driverless cars collide in an intersection. The computer in one talks to the computer in the other and says, “Hey, I had the green light!” “No you did not!” says the other. “I did.” It sounds like a joke, but the reality is that “driverless” vehicles are already taking their place on our highways. The vehicle would drive itself, using computerized components to detect other traffic, traffic signals and other barriers, so that the vehicle is entirely autonomous.

Photo credit: narvikk via istockphoto.com

Photo credit: narvikk via istockphoto.com

In 2007 Georgia Tech developed an autonomous auto for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Urban Challenge, and a Fayette County, Georgia, commissioner has consulted with Google about possibly testing such vehicles in that county. The technology is already being tested, and legislation is being discussed to deal with such autos. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has developed five classifications for the autonomous auto. Level “0” is a car completely controlled by its human driver. Level “1” has one or more specific functions automated, such as electronic stability or emergency breaking. Level “2” also includes factors such as cruise control and lane centering, but with the driver still behind the wheel.

At Level “3” the vehicle is in full control of all safety-critical functions under certain situations, but the driver is available to take over when needed. Level “4” vehicles have no steering wheel, gas or brake pedals, and are fully autonomous, being guided by radar, GPS and laser systems. Such vehicles are designed to perform all driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.

Data recording is currently available at all of these levels, and privacy disputes have already arisen over who may have access to such data when a vehicle is involved in an accident – much like the recordings of voice and mechanical data in an airliner’s “black box” (which may actually be red or orange).

In the future large trucks could be programmed to a specific designation, and no driver would be needed, eliminating the fatigue-factor and other hazards of commercial vehicles. But what, asked Assistant Law Professor at Georgia State University Yaniv Heled, will happen when there is a collision with a driverless vehicle? If the driverless vehicle was the cause of the accident, who gets sued? The owner? The manufacturer or designer? Interesting questions for claim adjusters!

For such vehicles to function in a practical way, changes will undoubtedly be needed in the way traffic signals function and considerably more use of remote control cameras focused on highways and intersections will be needed. Traffic lights will not only show a color (green, red, yellow, or an arrow) but also emit radio signals in each direction seconds before a light begins the change process. The automatic car may, therefore, be less likely to run a red light, but impatient drivers following such a vehicle may find the ability to squeeze through as the light changes hampered and frustrating.

Understanding how to investigate and analyze coverage issues is a major part of what is taught in Crawford Educational Services classes and KMC on Demand courses.

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