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Although Safer, Autonomous Driving Will Carry Its Own Risks

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By: Daniel M. Kotin

As trial lawyers representing those injured and killed in motor vehicle crashes, we have been emboldened by data demonstrating that driver-assist technology has dramatically reduced the number of injuries and deaths from crashes on American roadways.

An October 20, 2013 Chicago Tribune feature by Jerry Hirsch discussed many of the newly implemented computer technologies designed to make driving safer.  Some new vehicles have rear-end collision sensors which will automatically slam the brakes to avoid a collision.  Some vehicles will warn the driver and self-adjust the steering wheel when a car is about to drift out of its lane.  Many new vehicles have self-adjusting headlamps to better illuminate turns in the roadway.

These accident avoidance technologies combined with other safety improvements like self-tightening seatbelts have reduced injury claims by up to 33%.  All of these advances are moving us closer to “autonomous driving” – a day when cars will literally drive themselves from one place to another, and we will simply ride along as passengers.  In fact, this technology already exists and has been tested in Google’s self-driving Toyota Prius.

But as Hirsch’s article points out, along with the protections afforded by these advances, we must be prepared for glitches that go along with any computer technology.  There have already been incidents of front-end sensors causing cars to brake when there was no impending collision. Similarly, vehicles have self-corrected to remain in their lanes when safety required a lane change. We have all experienced the frustration caused when our desktop computers crash.  One can only imagine the tragedy that could ensue if the computer on a self-driving car likewise failed.

Looking forward in time to a nation filled with autonomous driving vehicles, we can foresee the thousands of yearly lawsuits against negligent drivers being replaced by thousands of product liability lawsuits due to computer failures.  The only safe alternative is a hybrid scenario – one in which vehicles could be essentially self-driving, but humans must always remain behind the wheel, prepared to react, and ultimately responsible for the safety of others.

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