There’s no escape from the self-driving car conversation. The news media and the public seem to be completely fascinated by the idea of automated vehicles. Self-driving vehicles are a regular fixture of headlines, and most stories focus on the future of automation and its impact on our roads.
But self-driving vehicles aren’t just a media fad that we’ll be reading about for years to come; they are also becoming a reality on our roads. They have been tested by companies around the country; those tests, while not conclusive, have been largely successful, aside from a few highly-publicized accidents like the Florida crash in 2016 involving a semi-autonomous Tesla vehicle driven by a former Navy Seal.
The companies behind automated vehicles, along with some safety advocates, are touting self-driving cars as our best hope at eliminating human error from our roads. Human error is responsible for over 90 percent of vehicle crashes, so it makes sense that we look to automation as a solution to this problem, especially in the wake of an uptick in road deaths in the United States.
But not everybody is sold on the idea that we should rush with open arms to self-driving vehicles. Consumer Reports, for example, has stated that automated vehicle manufacturers should be more cautious before releasing vehicles to consumers. A push by lawmakers to exempt self-driving cars from the same regulations as other vehicles has only strengthened that concern.
The worry on the part of consumer advocacy groups is that safety measures will be skirted for the sake of innovation, a trade-off that could have dangerous implications for those riding in and sharing the road with automated vehicles. But there is also another major concern about automated vehicles that should be troubling for anyone following the emergence of this technology.
A small but alarming investigation by MIT’s Agelab highlighted a gap between what dealers know about automated technology and what buyers are being taught. As reported in Wired, undercover researchers spoke to salespeople at 18 dealerships in the Boston area and found that only six of those surveyed provided thorough explanations of the technology they were selling. Four gave poor explanations, and two gave what researchers called almost dangerously incorrect information.
The interviews don’t constitute an in-depth study and shouldn’t be interpreted as a representation of all dealerships and their grasp of automated technology. But the research does shed light on a major oversight that could have devastating consequences as these vehicles become more widely available to consumers. Who is responsible for informing consumers about automated technology?
Even automated vehicles require some effort by drivers. There might come a day when you get behind the wheel of an automobile, tell it where you want to go and sit idly by while you’re whisked away to your destination. But, thus far, it looks like the evolution toward automation will be more gradual, which means drivers need to be educated on how to integrate automated technologies into their current driving routine.
What the MIT Agelab interviews uncover is the fact that no group is being held accountable for educating car buyers. Do dealers carry that responsibility? Should it fall on manufacturers? Unfortunately, there are no answers to these questions, and in their absence could emerge a dangerous disconnect between what cars are capable of and what is required of drivers.
Self-driving vehicles are fascinating for many reasons, but the fact that they are unprecedented is a significant one. The novelty of automated cars is what excites and scares us. This has been true for many types of transportation. It’s the unknown that caused apprehension and anticipation when trains first appeared in the 19th century and when motor vehicles first became staples on our roads in the early part of the 20th century.
Of all the forms of transportation, the one most likely to provide us with a satisfying frame of reference for the challenges we face with automated vehicles is air travel. Airplanes are a good lens through which to view the future of automated vehicles, because air travel represents a sizable chunk of modern transportation. It is also highly automated and impressively safe compared to other types of travel.
Today’s planes can run on autopilot throughout most flights in wide-ranging scenarios. Computers can determine weather conditions and adjust accordingly, though it’s worth noting that human pilots are still tasked with handling many of those adjustments, especially in the United States. Still, flight management systems are constantly evaluating the most efficient course of action during a given flight, and pilots need only monitor the plane’s computer. Many types of planes are even capable of landing themselves.
How much pilots rely on automation depends on the region in which their airline is based. In Asia, pilots are actually required to rely heavily on automation to avoid human error. In the United States, pilots are asked to do more than their Asian counterparts, though they also depend on automated functions throughout much of their flights.
The degree to which planes are automated is impressive. These systems have proven to be both effective and safe. This gives us hope that computers can do the job and might indeed make our roads safer if similar technologies can be created to reflect road safety requirements.
When looking to aviation for comfort, however, it is important we understand that even though planes can perform high-level tasks on autopilot, they are still controlled by experienced, qualified pilots that can take over in an emergency. Even if automatic pilot functions perfectly fine 95 percent of the time, there is still a time and place where a skilled operator must intervene to avoid a crash.
Fueled by the hopes of conquering the market and being first in the sprint toward automation, companies are understandably eager to design and sell their products to consumers as quickly as possible. Lawmakers seem to be inclined to enable their eagerness. But consumers must also voice their concerns. We need to demand accountability and ask our regulators to do the same when creating guidelines for automakers.
We should be hopeful about the promises of automated vehicles, but we need to know who will be in charge of teaching car buyers how to safely use this technology. We place a great deal of trust in manufacturers to sell us safe products. That trust will only become more important as automated vehicles begin taking the wheel from drivers.
If you have questions about the obligations of vehicle manufacturers or wish to speak with an attorney about your legal concerns, contact Neale & Fhima online or call us at (888) 407-2955. Our attorneys represent clients in personal injury and lemon law claims throughout California.