Automated Vehicles

The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

We have become dependent on technological advances for societal advances, and there is no futuristic technology more publicized or discussed than automated vehicles (AVs), or self-driving cars. A concept once found exclusively in science-fiction and cartoons, automated vehicles have commandeered newscasts and social media posts as the topic of a sizzling debate. One side argues that human error accounts for, at minimum, 90% of automobile accidents; the other side argues that surrendering control of your vehicle is dystopian and illogical. So… who’s right? The answer is complex and still unknown, although some states, like Pennsylvania, are trying to be ahead of the curve by choosing a side.

The Good

It is unsurprising to hear that humans, particularly Americans, aren’t great drivers as a whole. According to driversknowledge.com, 6 million automobile accidents occur in America EVERY YEAR. If 90% of these accidents are caused by human error, that means 5,400,000 accidents every year are the direct result of a person’s error. Automated vehicles are expected to lower those numbers at a potentially significant rate and Pennsylvania legislators have bought into the hype. In October of 2018, Governor Tom Wolf signed House Bill 1958, now known as Act 117 of 2018, setting the foundation and establishing guidelines for automated vehicles to be used in official Pennsylvania work zones and for the platooning of motor carrier vehicles.

For the purposes of the bill, automated vehicles have now been authorized to be tested and implemented in work zones, on behalf of the state’s workforce. A great example of this is an “attenuator” or crash truck, in Layman’s terms. At the very end of a worksite, especially those on major highways, sits a truck with an accordion-like extension hitched to its rear. The purpose is to have a barrier between workers and a would-be errant vehicle plowing into the work site. Currently, the attenuator is operated by a human, moving ever-so-slightly as the work zone moves. However, this poses a huge injury risk for an individual forced to operate the attenuator and has resulted in frightening accidents in the past. Ideally, an automated vehicle operating as the attenuator would maintain worker’s safety and eliminate the risk associated with operating it.

Another benefit mentioned in the bill is “platooning” of motor carrier vehicles. For this, automated vehicles would use computers to communicate road conditions, potential obstacles, and traffic issues at a much faster and safer rate than humans could. According to State Representative Greg Rothman, the platooning technology can react in as little as 30 milliseconds, compared to the 1-1.5 seconds it typically takes a human. Although the bill limits platoon size to three and specifies they may only be used on PA highways, it’s a clear sign that the state has full intentions of exploring every possible automated vehicle avenue.

Lastly, Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary, Leslie Richards, has discussed a joint operation in tandem with the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, Federal Highway Administration, and Pennsylvania State University to create a “first-of-its-kind” highway used to test automated vehicles. These tests include, but are not limited to: high speed interchange movements, automated emergency vehicles and zone vehicles.

It is clear the state of Pennsylvania is very supportive of automated vehicles and plans on being a national leader in the industry.

The Bad

As with most aspects of our lives, perfection is almost unattainable; the same goes with automated vehicles. Relinquishing control of your motor vehicle is an intimidating concept and understandably so. An abundance of questions loom over automated vehicles: Will the human driver have any control, How soon will I be sharing the road with automated vehicles, Who’s at fault when an accident involving automated vehicles occur, Can a human driver receive a DUI while sitting in an automated vehicle, What are the dangers of automated vehicles, and many, many more.

Most of these questions remain unanswered, yet relevant. Because automated vehicles are just breaking into the market now, very little regulation exists regarding them. It is estimated that over 200 automakers have begun investing, researching, and developing automated vehicles, all of which, deal with very little oversight and regulation.

Why does that matter? Automaker regulations set standards for safety and quality assurance; without them, an already dangerous concept becomes even riskier. Aside from material aspects like brakes, seatbelts, manufactured parts, and collision reactions, the most important piece of the car also remains unregulated: the computer.

In automated vehicles, computers, which connect to the internet, are an absolute necessity. Introducing complex computer networks increases the risk of driving an automated vehicle, for a few reasons.

For starters, the vehicle becomes an immediate risk for being hacked. Vehicles can be the targets of hackers, viruses, and more. Along with those risks, come the threat of being “hijacked” or remotely controlled by a hacker. Because the computer controls so many aspects of the vehicle, an individual can theoretically gain complete control of the vehicle and operate it as they so choose, posing a clear and evident danger to the driver, the passengers, and those who share the road.

Furthermore, increased computer capabilities also increase electromagnetic field radiation, which is known to cause health problems. These issues include, but are not limited to: high blood pressure, migraines, shortness of breath, optical issues, exhaustion, and sleeplessness.

Additionally, the complex computer systems run the risk of malfunctioning. A computer error can occur at random at any time and cause serious injury and even death to both those inside the malfunctioning car and those who are sharing the road with it. These complex systems add another risk of car failure, which is already fairly common.

The ultimate risk comes with automated vehicles and human-operated vehicles sharing the road. Automated vehicles will drive as instructed by their computer systems, which can cause miscommunication between drivers or vehicles on the road. Currently, most automated vehicles, or vehicles with features that allow for temporary automation, still require human interaction. The driver must keep a hand on the wheel at all times, although there are tricks to getting around this. However, as the technology increases, the need for human drivers’ interaction may decrease. Whether that is the case or not, automated vehicles tend to lull drivers and passengers into a false sense of security and decrease focus on the road, possibly eliminating it.

The Ugly

The ugly side of automated vehicles is the grey area that surrounds all issues regarding them. There is little to no established law when regarding automated vehicles, which presents the possibility of precedent setting legal battles.

For instance, if a human driver is struck by an automated vehicle that has human passengers inside, who is at fault? Is it the owner of the car, is it the car company, could it actually be the person who was struck? Could an individual claim their vehicle’s computer was hacked or malfunctioned?

In another instance, if an individual over the age of 21 was to enjoy a few beers at a local bar during the course of a sporting event and drove home in his automated vehicle, only to be pulled over by police for a broken taillight, could he be issued a DUI?

In the final theoretical instance, if two automated vehicles with human passengers were to get into a crash, which human passengers would be responsible for the damages? Would the automaker accept any responsibility? Would the law ensure they had to?

There are many questions and a myriad of “what if” scenarios involving automated vehicles and a limited amount of answers currently available. In the days, months, and years to come, you should emphasize staying vigilant and up-to-date on automated vehicle laws and how they can affect you.

Pennsylvania is a pioneer state in terms of automated vehicle promotion and appears to be very accepting to the idea of human-driven and automated vehicles sharing the road. These prospects create a potentially unjust and dangerous situation for you and your loved ones as you travel to work, school, and leisure. For new and helpful information regarding automated vehicle law and how it pertains to drivers, make sure to check out oconnorlaw.com. If you ever have any specific or complicated issues on this matter, you can call 800-518-4529 (800-518-4LAW) and one of our associates will set you up with a free consultation. We’ll fight to ensure you have the same rights and protections, whether you’re operating, interacting with, or avoiding automated vehicles. Don’t let your fear of the future become your regret of the past.

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