The development of autonomous cars has been described as our generation’s equivalent of the transition from the horse and buggy to the Model T. This advance is exciting, but it’s bound to come with hiccups along the way as legislation and society struggle to come to grips with the new technology.
Case-in-point? Recently, a San Francisco man was arrested for drunk driving when police discovered him not just intoxicated, but asleep at the wheel on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The man had passed out during 5:30 PM rush hour traffic, and his car was at a full stop. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incident.
What does this have to do with driverless cars?
When awakened by police, the man assured officers that all was well because he had not really been “driving” intoxicated because he was using the autopilot feature of his Tesla. This did not go over well with the police, and the man was charged with a DUI.
Should he have been charged, though? After all, isn’t the point of driverless cars the fact that they can drive themselves? Isn’t it kind of a given that with self-driving technology becoming increasingly common, more people will attempt to operate these vehicles intoxicated? Will this lead to more DUI accidents when they do? Moreover, who will be held liable for injuries sustained in accidents with self-driving cars?
To even try to answer these questions, the first thing you need to do is learn the difference between “Autopilot” and “autonomous.”
Autopilot vs. Autonomous: Why the Difference Matters
Tesla cars are not technically “autonomous.” Rather, their autopilot feature is considered to offer driving assistance. In other words, it is designed to operate with a fully attentive (and sober) driver as a backup. Therefore, operating these vehicles on autopilot while intoxicated is still very much illegal.
The technology for fully autonomous cars, which can reach their destination with no human intervention, exists, although it is still very much a work in progress. Manufacturers estimate that current technology is about twice as safe as a human driver, and that this will likely improve further as the technology evolves.
However, autonomous functionality is dependent upon ongoing software validation and regulatory approval. This varies widely by jurisdiction, but Floridians need to pay close attention because our state may actually be leading the way in approving self-driving cars.
When this happens, what should we expect? Sure, manufacturers say that autonomous cars are safer, but how will that play out in the real world? What about those hiccups that always come with new technologies?
Could Self-Driving Cars Actually Lead to More Accidents?
The idea behind self-driving cars is that a computer-operated car is not subject to human error or distracted driving, so the number of car accidents, injuries, and fatalities will decrease. However, in practice, it’s possible – perhaps even likely – that we could see a temporary increase in the number of injuries involving self-driving cars as we adjust to this paradigm-shifting technology.
This is particularly true right now with the semi-autonomous cars that are out there. There are already several instances of drivers becoming overconfident in the self-driving ability of these vehicles and it leading to big problems. A number of people have gotten behind the wheel while intoxicated, for example, or ignored automated warnings to place their hands back on the wheel. In one case, this led to a fatal accident.
Even once we actually have the supposedly safer fully autonomous vehicles on the road, human drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists will all need to acclimate to them. Particularly where self-driving car owners are concerned, people are people, and when given the opportunity to disengage or indulge, as in the case of alcohol, many will do just that. Because of this, it’s quite possible that this transition period will include more accidents as well.
Liability in Self-Driving Car Injuries
Already, self-driving cars are forcing us to look at auto accident liability in a new way. Currently, human drivers tend to be held liable for car accident damages and injuries even when using semi-autonomous technology. The possibility for partial responsibility exists, though, even now.
When cars become fully autonomous, logic seems to say that liability would no longer lay at the feet of a human driver – even one “driving” drunk – but rather the technology itself. In other words, crashes of self-driving cars ability will likely be blamed on the manufacturer, as the accident would be attributed to defects in the car’s self-driving function.
All vehicle accidents, then, would likely fall into the category of defect product lawsuits. This would seem to be bad news for manufacturers, though the hope is that far fewer accidents will occur overall, decreasing total damages they might have to pay.
This is, of course, is also assuming that auto accident liability laws will be rewritten to reflect this change. Which brings us back to those hiccups we’re likely to see. Because legislation almost always takes some time to adapt, and any accidents that occur during this legal gray area are likely to be incredibly complex and confusing, particularly those involving intoxicated drivers.
If you are harmed in an accident where the driver of an autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicle was drinking, you need to reach out to an experienced Florida personal injury lawyers if you want to have the best chance at receiving the compensation you need and deserve.
About the Author:
Since 1994, seasoned litigation and trial lawyer Anthony B. White has helped thousands of accident victims seek damages due to injuries sustained as a result of another party’s negligence. Included in America’s Registry of Outstanding Professionals and selected to the 2012, 2013, and 2014 editions of Florida Super Lawyers, Mr. White specializes in car accidents, insurance disputes, wrongful death, product liability, and medical malpractice cases. He is a longstanding member of the Florida Justice Association and the American Association for Justice and currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Broward County Justice Association.