Google's test Car Hits the Streets

Google recently conducted a test of its driverless vehicle on the streets of Mountain View, its Silicon Valley headquarters. It stopped at stop signs. It obeyed traffic laws. Its developer believes this new car could make accidents less likely.

The vehicle itself was a Lexus RX 450h, a hybrid model with special customization including a front-mounted radar sensor for collision avoidance as well as roof-mounted lasers and cameras for guidance and detection.

During the test drive, an oncoming vehicle appeared to turn left in front of the Google car’s path. The Google car applied the brakes.

Ethical and liability issues arise

Aside from being programmed with traffic laws, self-driving cars—if indeed they are our future—should arguably be able to respond to unusual circumstances arising during real-life driving situations that require human driver’s to make decisions such as:

  • Should a car attempt to protect occupants first, even at the risk of hitting pedestrians or other vehicles?
  • If preventing an accident would require a maneuver that violates traffic laws, should the cars be programmed to execute such maneuvers?

There are also serious legal implications for self-driving cars involved in collisions. If the car collides with another vehicle, who (or what) is liable? Liability could rest with the occupants, auto maker, and/or software company. Some experts believe, according to a Reuters report, that legal issues “might be almost as vexing as technical ones.” The Brookings Institution released a report in April 2014, concluding that existing contract and product-liability laws can account for self-driving cars.

U.S. regulators are weighing in

Some forecasts optimistically predict we may see these vehicles as early as the end of the current decade. Already auto makers have been introducing semi-autonomous features that include collision avoidance radar. Such features promise safety and less congestion on the roads. The 2014 Mercedes Benz S-class sedan claims it is capable of allowing 70 percent “autonomous driving.” The car can steer, accelerate, and brake by itself in traffic up to 40 miles per hour.

However U.S. regulators are putting the brakes on the further use of technology beyond what Mercedes can do now. In particular, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “has warned states not to fully allow self-driving cars,” like Google’s car, except for testing purposes.

The agency is working on a study to be released around 2017. These new vehicles will require performance metrics, tests, and regulations before sales will be permitted.

Human error causes more than 90 percent of accidents

The proponents of self-driving vehicles cite statistics of human error as the cause of more than 30,000 car accident-related deaths in the United States each year.

While the benefits of these vehicles remain to be seen, the attorneys at Bohn & Fletcher are available to assist those injured in car and other vehicle-related accidents in achieving full and fair compensation for their damages.