PennDOT Issues Recommendations for Self-Driving Cars

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You have probably read a report, seen a news piece, or even shared the road with one of the futuristic self-driving cars. These vehicles are not plucked out of a science fiction story, but rather are very real, and are increasingly joining other drivers on the road.  However, the technology behind these vehicles is not perfect and is continually being developed, refined, and tweaked. Major companies have devoted hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop these vehicles with major companies such as Tesla and Google leading the charge.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation recently released recommendations for self-driving cars as a way of both encouraging the technology and perhaps laying a foundation for regulating these vehicles in the future. However, while it may be clear that these vehicles are here to stay, what is not clear is who is liable for an accident with a self-driving car? Let our Philadelphia car accident lawyers explain.

A Brief Understanding of How Self-Driving Cars Operate  

Self- driving cars are able to navigate the roads and highways by sensing the surrounding environment and without human input moving through their environment. Self-driving cars use a technology that most of us are probably familiar with, and these vehicles are equipped with a GPS unit to locate the vehicle and let the car know where the roads are.

However, a GPS system alone will not allow a car to operate on its own without crashing into whatever car is in its way, in order to avoid other cars, pedestrians, as well as other objects that may be on the road these vehicles are equipped with a range of sensors that provide the car’s internal computer with a sort of picture of its environment by taking advantage of laser rangefinders, radar, and even video. 

All of these technology components operate together to help the car form a three-dimensional image of the surrounding environment.  However, again these individual technologies, although amazing and innovative, do not make a vehicle truly able to operate on the roads. In order for a car to operate on its own without the continual guidance of a human, the car needs to be able to “make decisions” and respond to stimuli. To facilitate this decision-making process a majority of these self-driving vehicles implement a deliberative architecture.  

While it is largely impossible to explain all of the incredibly intricate nuances that these technological wonders employ top navigate on the roads, what is clear is that the deliberative architecture or its synonymous component are capable of making intelligent decisions by maintaining an internal map of their surrounding environment, and then using that information as well as maps to find an optimal path for their destination. By employing these technologies self-driving cars, in theory, can avoid obstacles in their path such as other vehicles, pedestrians, and road structures. 

Similar to how the human eye is continually taking in information which is then processed by the brain, the “brain” of these self-driving cars take in information constantly so that the car can properly respond to road conditions. Similar to how a driver would respond to an event on the road. Once the vehicle determines the best route to take or identifies a condition that needs to be avoided the commands are sent to the vehicle’s actuators, which control the vehicles steering, brakes, and throttle.  

Accidents with Self-Driving Cars  

Self-driving cars may free drivers from sitting behind the wheel of their vehicle and focusing on the road in the near future, however, as it stands now the technology behind these vehicles is not perfect.  

These automatic vehicles have been involved in accidents and will continue to be involved in accidents. Not only do drivers have to account for the automated cars, but drivers also have to account for other drivers on the road. One example of an accident involving a self-driving car happened on September 23, 2016, when a van and one of the heavily modified Google Lexus RX 450 SUV collided in the middle of an intersection. This case demonstrates that accidents with self-driving cars are rare, but do happen. 

In this particular accident, Google reported that it was the result of the other driver running a red light and striking the side of their vehicle rather than the result of their own vehicle malfunctioning. While all the facts of the accidents are not available, there is a viable question that had the Google employee been in control of the vehicle could they have stopped the accident? 

While this accident imputes fault on the driver of the van, there was another accident involving a self-driving vehicle also operated by Google that was involved in an at-fault accident as the vehicle attempted to navigate around a sandbag in the middle of the road and subsequently hitting a bus. In this accident, Google released a statement subsequent to the accident report  

We clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved there wouldn’t have been a collision. That said, our test driver believed the bus was going to slow or stop to allow us to merge into the traffic, and that there would be sufficient space to do that. 

This statement may set a powerful precedent in determining who is liable after an accident with a self-driven car because at it stands there are grounds for ambiguity for liability issues.  

Liability in Self-Driving Car Accidents  

After nearly six months of deliberation by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s Autonomous Vehicle Task Force recommendations were sent to Harrisburg to not only encourage the growth and development of self-driving vehicles but also to regulate them.  However, while six months of deliberations were spent determining the best method of introducing self-driving cars to Pennsylvania roads, one area of concern for legislators and drivers alike is just who is liable for an accident.  

Because there have been so few reports of accidents involving self-driving cars, the answer to that question is not exactly clear. However, one lawsuit that is worth examining involves the only recorded fatal accident involving a self-driving car to date.   In May of 2016, a Tesla Model S was being operated in its optional autonomous mode when it was involved in a fatal accident. While it is not immediately clear why the car did not detect the vehicle in front of it, the Tesla Model S crashed into the back of a truck while the driver was watching a movie.  Unfortunately, the driver of the Tesla lost their life in this accident. This tragic accident raises an issue in liability. Should liability for this accident rest with the car’s manufacturer, or should it rest with the driver who failed to override the car’s autonomous driving mode in time to stop?  

It does not appear that any court in the United States has rendered a decision on this type of case.  A court could decide that liability rests with the driver based on the theory of negligence, which imposes a duty on all drivers to operate their vehicles as a reasonably prudent person would, and if they fail to do so and their actions or inactions subsequently result in an accident and injuries then that driver will be liable for the accident and any resulting injuries. However, if a court decides that liability rests with the car manufacturer it would most likely do so under the theory of products liability. 

In the accident with the Tesla Model S, the driver was watching a movie at the time of the accident and failed to override the autonomous driving mode. A court may see this as negligence and analyze the accident as follows. The driver had a duty to observe and pay attention while they were behind the wheel of their car (regardless of the car being capable of driving on its own), the driver breached their duty when they were watching a movie, as a result of watching the movie and not overriding the vehicle’s autonomous mode the car struck another vehicle, and therefore the Tesla driver was their own source of injuries.  

Philadelphia Car Accident Lawyers

However, while it may be argued that the driver had a duty to override the vehicle’s self-driving mode, it can also be argued that the car had a defect which caused the accident. This fact may shift liability back to the car’s manufacturer. In Pennsylvania, the legal standard for almost thirty-five years addressing product liability was the case of  Azzarello v. Black Brothers Co., 391 A.2d 1020 (Pa. 1979).

However, this confusing standard was dismissed in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case of Tincher v. Omega Flex, 104 A.3d 328 (Pa. 2014). specifically, the Tincher Court held that “the cause of action in strict products liability [for a design defect] requires proof, in the alternative, either of the ordinary consumer’s expectations or of the risk-utility of the product.” Tincher, at 401. This means that in order for an injured driver to recover under the theory of strict liability, that the driver must prove one of the following:  

  1. The Consumer Expectations Standard. “The consumer expectations test defines a ‘defective condition’ as a condition, upon normal use, dangerous beyond the reasonable consumer’s contemplation.” Id. at 386. That is, “[t]he product is not defective if the ordinary consumer would reasonably anticipate and appreciate the dangerous condition of the product and the attendant risk of injury of which the plaintiff complains.” Id.
  1. The Risk-Utility Standard. “[A] product is in a defective condition if a ‘reasonable person’ would conclude that the probability and seriousness of harm caused by the product outweigh the burden or cost of taking precautions.” Id. at 389. “Stated otherwise, a seller’s precautions to advert [sic] the danger should anticipate and reflect the type and magnitude of the risk posed by the sale and use of the product.” Id.

However, while this may state the law in Pennsylvania, how it is applied or will be applied is yet to be seen. A thorny issue in this particular case is that according to reports all Tesla buyers agree by contract to keep their hands on the wheel at all times, even while the car is operating on its own.  What will be interesting to watch over the next several months and years is how the Pennsylvania courts analyze these accidents and who they impose liability on. 

Injured and Seeking a Philadelphia Car Accident Attorney?  

As self-driving cars become more popular and more readily available to the general public it seems obvious that accidents will continue to happen. However, don’t be intimidated by large companies and uncertainty. When you are in an accident, turn to an experienced attorney to help. At The Reiff Law Firm we understand that an accident can have a devastating impact on your life. If you or somebody you love has been seriously injured in an accident, call a Northeast Philadelphia car accident lawyer of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online.  

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