U.S. Auto Safety Regulator Considers Additional Autonomous Driving Vehicle Oversight

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Autonomous vehicles have been promised by some to be the key to eventually ushering in an era where the car, truck, and other vehicle accidents are a thing of the past. However, even advocates of the technology admit that the systems are still in their relatively early stages. It will take significantly more work, effort, and refinement before these early autonomous vehicles even approach the ability to drive without the risk of crashing. Were you injured in a car accident due to an autonomous vehicle? Contact a Philadelphia car accident lawyer.

Recent accidents involving autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles has directed a spotlight on the continued development of these vehicles. While self-driving vehicles are likely the future, they must be developed in a safe and responsible manner that does not place other motorists at risk.

Autonomous Vehicle Accidents Create Vehicle Safety Concerns

For a brief time, it seemed that autonomous vehicles were already living up to their safety promises. For a number of months, it seemed that autonomous vehicles designed and deployed by companies like Google, Tesla, and others would be able to avoid serious accidents that called the safety of the vehicle into question.  However, these expectations were probably unfair and in the summer of 2016 a number of accidents should cause regulators to think twice regarding the safety of self-driving vehicles.

To start, we have already written about the self-driving car programmed by Google that collided with a city bus in California. However, the first major fatal accident occurred in May when a Tesla Model S driven by John Brown crashed while in auto-pilot mode. According to reports, the driver was watching one of the Harry Potter movies when the vehicle’s autopilot misinterpreted a hazard causing the vehicle to collide with a commercial tractor-trailer. Another driver alleges that the autopilot system in his Tesla malfunctioned  in early July while driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The malfunction apparently caused the vehicle to hit a guard rail “off the right side of the roadway. It then crossed over the eastbound lanes and hit the concrete median.”

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Existing FMVSS Do Not Address Autonomous Vehicles

Many wonder why these vehicles have been allowed to operate on public roads and highways when it is clear that there are still bugs and imperfections in the systems that can lead to serious crashes that cause life-altering injuries or even death. This is due to the fact that existing federal motor-vehicle safety regulations do not address autonomous vehicles. Since the regulations are silent regarding autonomous vehicles, NHTSA and other regulators cannot take prospective action. Rather, they can only address safety issues after a serious crash or safety issue is identified.

However, due to concerns regarding the safety of the technology spurred by a number of high-profile accidents, federal regulators are working to secure additional regulatory authority. According to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx:

There is no express prohibition of autonomous vehicles in … federal motor vehicle safety standard. I’ve been encouraging our team to think about…the extent to which we should encourage pre-market-approval steps. That would require industry and the department to be more in sync and more rigorous on the front end of development and testing. This change would be one that could help us assure not only ourselves but the industry and also consumers that the vehicles they are getting into are ones that have been stress-tested.

Expanding government regulator’s power to regulate technology before it reaches drivers would significantly expand industry oversight and may go a long way towards ensuring that all vehicles on the roadway are free from defects and especially technological defects.

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Unfortunately, automakers like Tesla are expected to work to block these efforts. Recently Tesla CEO Elon Musk stated that “You can’t. You wouldn’t even know [how safe the system is.]” He continued stating that, “If we knew we had a system that on balance would save lives, what kind of f—— coward wouldn’t deploy that system. There is the coward’s path, we are not taking that.” While it is certainly true that the technology may eventually save lives, it is incredibly difficult to know whether underlying errors may lurk in the code. If the platform is deployed widely without adequate testing, disastrous and widespread accidents are at least theoretically possible. Thus, it may make sense for regulators to develop a middle ground where new technology and software can be deployed first in controlled environments and then in small waves.

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Following the serious problems of the GM ignition switch glitch and the Takata airbag defect, it will be interesting to see whether regulators take a less deferential approach to the regulation of automakers. In any case, let’s hope that the approach regulators take encourage responsible action by vehicle manufacturers while not going too far and stifling innovation. If you were injured by the Takata airbag, call a Takata airbag accident injury attorney of The Reiff Law Firm.

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