Relegating Self-Driving Vehicles to Separate Roadways

On Friday, July 8 2016, the Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed by a leading computer scientist, Jerry Kaplan, in which he predicts that in order to truly be successful integrating self-driving vehicles into society, we will need to adapt and construct separate roadways purposed solely for autonomous traffic.

Responding to the first known fatality in a self-driving car in May 2016, Kaplan cautions readers that “this was no ordinary accident” and that “the car performed exactly as designed . . . the (non)driver’s failure to take any corrective action could reasonably have been foreseen by [Tesla].” In other words, Kaplan argues that “it’s simply not practical to ask passengers in a self-driving vehicle to remain alert and engaged” –calling the fatal collision “an unwelcome yet widely anticipated milestone [that] may set back progress on what promises to be one of the most valuable technologies of the 21st century.” 

Likening the introduction of today’s early-stage autonomous vehicles to the “‘horseless carriages’ of the early 1900s,” Kaplan warns that automakers like Tesla have “pursued a flawed vision of the future, one in which tomorrow’s technology is simply layered on top of today’s.” Much like the early 1900s, Kaplan reminds readers that it the tangible benefits of self-driving technology won’t be realized until “substantial changes [are made] in our transportation infrastructure,” and that “the true power of the automobile was unleashed only after streets were paved, lanes marked, traffic lights installed, pedestrians confined to sidewalks and horse-drawn traffic curtailed.” Much in the same way, Kaplan argues that in order to harness the power of self-driving technologies we must first separate autonomous vehicles from human-piloted traffic on separate thoroughfares and equip every vehicle with a transponder for sending and receiving navigational information. 

According to Kaplan, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is expected to issue rules mandating the installation of transponders in all new American automobiles in the near futures. Equipped with this technology, Kaplan states that “vehicle-to-vehicle” (“V2V”) communication will be a reality, allowing automobiles to broadcast their speed, anticipated turns, and other relevant operating information to one another. According to the NHTSA, installing transponders to promote V2V communication could prevent as many as 500,000 crashes and 930 fatalities annually. While impressive in their life-saving potential, Kaplan cautions that transponders are currently only able to assist human drivers, but if paired with self-driving technology on separate roads, the reduction in accidents and fatalities could be much higher.

 Looking ahead, Kaplan predicts that many states could enact reactionary legislation stalling the development of self-driving vehicles as companies scramble to integrate “limited-functionality products with today’s streets and drivers” rendering the technology as “a mere novelty or convenience” until a comprehensive and dedicated infrastructure is implemented to support self-driving vehicles.

 As an interesting coda, in the following YouTube video Kaplan presents a case for the safety-centric ethical considerations that underscore his position that self-driving vehicles need to be segregated to their “own” throughways: Would You Buy a Car That's Programmed to Kill You? 

Tesla's fatal autopilot crash: Family may have grounds to sue

On July 6, the Guardian featured a piece in which legal experts suggested that the family of Joshua Brown—the man who on May 7, 2016, was killed in a fatal collision while traveling in his Tesla Model S vehicle—may have grounds to sue the innovative automaker.

On May 7, 2016, Joshua Brown was killed when the Tesla vehicle in which he was travelling failed to respond to an abrupt change in traffic during ‘autopilot’ mode and collided with the side of a truck before careening off the shoulder of the road. Following the collision, questions remain as to whether Brown was watching a portable DVD player at the time of the collision, while investigators have determined that neither Brown nor his vehicle’s operating system took any evasive actions just prior to the collision. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration is conducting an ongoing investigation of the crash.

In response to recent media coverage of the event, Tesla published a blog post in which the automaker described its autopilot feature as more of a “traffic-aware cruise control” than a traditional autonomous operating system, and reiterated its warning to motorists to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times during autopilot operation—a warning made apparent to motorists by visual alerts and mechanical slowing the vehicle until the driver’s hands are detected. Further, Tesla stressed that the autopilot feature present in vehicles like the one involved in the fatal crash is “disabled by fault and requires specific acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled.” Despite Tesla’s recent efforts to point out the shortcomings and operator-dependent nature of their burgeoning technology, the company—through founder Elon Musk—has a history of touting its autopilot feature as “probably better than humans at this point in highway driving.”

Despite these warnings, some legal experts believe that the deceased’s family will have a strong case against Tesla. Anthony Johnson, CEO of the American Injury Attorney Group, says that Brown’s family “absolutely” has a product liability case against the automaker, based on whether Brown “was adequately warned about the potential defects in the system.” According to Johnson, the family will likely argue that “whatever warnings may have been offered, the driver may have been led to believe the system was more capable than it was.” What’s more, according to Johnson, “the term ‘autopilot’ has been used for decades and is understood by the masses as a situation whereby the machine (typically airplanes until recently) pilots the vehicle for the operator. . . you cant sell something at the grocery store that looks like a tomato and is labeled tomato and place in the fine print that its actually a grape.”

Despite this view, not all legal experts believe that Brown’s family has such a strong claim. Farid Yaghoubtil, a personal injury attorney in Los Angeles, said that “If there was a sensor, if [Tesla] had the safety features in place and [Brown] ignored them, it would make a huge difference in being able to pursue a case, because at that point [Tesla would be able to shift] the burden from themselves to the user.”

Examining the legal response likely to be levied by Tesla, Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor  at the University of South Carolina, said that the automaker will likely “point to warnings they gave on prior use, point to the fact that this was a beta that required supervision, argue that the acts of the driver was the predominant cause of the crash” in trying to argue that Brown was at least partly culpable for his death. Ultimately, says Smith, the case will come down to reasonableness, with a jury asked to determine “was Tesla reasonable , was its design reasonable, was the driver reasonable?”