The Brave New World of the Automated Car

It is a common observation that most car accidents are not accidents. Rather, they are negligence. Negligence is a legal doctrine that is typically explained as the violation of a duty of care.

A surgeon has a duty to perform their task as a surgeon at a level of other reasonably prudent surgeons. A driver of an automobile has a duty to operate their vehicle in as safe a manner as conditions allow.

It may seem a vague standard, but that vagueness is necessary because of the near infinite variety of potential fact situations that may occur. Safe operation of a vehicle on a dry stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike during daylight hours in July may be vastly different from during a snowstorm on a rural two-lane county road at night in January.

A significant number of car accidents are caused by human error. Drunk driving, texting, shaving, putting on make-up and speeding are all negligent behavior as they violate the standard that a reasonably prudent driver use when driving.

This is why autonomous cars hold such promise. A computerized car, with radar, cameras and other sensors, communicating with other vehicles nearby and with traffic control devices portend a future of far fewer highway fatalities.

However, automation is far from perfect at this point, and experiments with the Google car show that widespread implementation of this technology on production vehicles is unlikely to occur in the very near future.

And there is a problem. Of course, there is a problem, this is a law firm blog, after all. The problem is seen in what automation of cockpits have done for airline pilots. We will look at that next time.

Vanity Fair, “The Human Factor,” William Langewiesche, October 2014

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