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Self-Driving Vehicles: Are Robots and Drivers a Dangerous Combination?

Self-driving vehicles are on the fast track. However, many safety and liability issues remain unresolved, particularly for semi-autonomous cars that still require driver involvement.

While most major automakers are developing “autonomous” vehicles, most of the models that are currently being tested still require some level of human interaction. These so-called “Level 3” vehicles can perform many driving operations autonomously; however, they require drivers to take over if a crash is imminent. We are concerned that dividing the responsibilities between technology and drivers could be a recipe for disaster.

Crash Risk of Semi-Autonomous Vehicles

Not all autonomous vehicles are created equal. Under the scale created by the Society of Automotive Engineers and adopted by the Department of Transportation, Level 5 vehicles are truly self-driving and do not require any driver involvement. Meanwhile, Level 3 involves “conditional automation,” in which “the human driver will respond appropriately to a request to intervene.”

The concern with Level 3 vehicles is that drivers may be required to take over control of the vehicle with as little as 10 seconds’ notice. If drivers are not paying attention, they may not be able to respond quickly enough to prevent a crash.

Testing of semi-autonomous vehicles confirms the risk is real. The phenomenon is referred to as “snoozing while cruising.” Engineers testing the vehicles are falling asleep or becoming distracted, even despite the use of bells, whistles and vibrations intended to keep them focused. As a result, they are not prepared to retake control of the vehicle in an emergency.

“There’s evidence to suggest that Level 3 may show an increase in traffic crashes,” Nidhi Kalra, co-director of the Rand Center for Decision Making Under Uncertainty, testified before Congress. “I don’t think there’s enough evidence to suggest that it should be prohibited at this time, but it does pose safety concerns.”

Assigning Legal Liability in an Autonomous Vehicle Accident

Although semi-autonomous vehicles pose safety concerns, many auto manufacturers are hesitant to hand over control to computers. One of the main reasons is liability for a motor vehicle crash. Because semi-autonomous cars require drivers to be attentive and aware of the surrounding environment, they may ultimately be held responsible for a crash.

It remains unclear whether the legal responsibility will shift away from the driver once fully autonomous vehicles are on the road. As self-driving vehicles continue to be developed, the distinction between autonomous versus semi-autonomous vehicles will significantly impact the determination of fault in a motor vehicle crash and whether the liability lies with the driver or the vehicle's designer/manufacturer. As San Diego personal injury attorneys, we are closely monitoring this issue.

If you or someone you care about has suffered serious harm due to a dangerous or defective motor vehicle, don’t hesitate to contact a San Diego injury lawyer at the Law Offices of Robert Vaage for a free consultation.