Legal Questions Surround Self-Driving Cars and Fatalities

May 11th, 2018 by Attorney John Colvin

Legal Questions Surround Self-Driving Cars and Fatalities

If a fully autonomous vehicle causes a death, who is to blame? That’s a question that doesn’t have a clear answer, but an answer may be coming soon.

In March, a self-driving Uber car stuck and killed a cyclist who was walking her bike across a street in Tempe, Ariz. The car – a Volvo XC90 SUV – was traveling around 40 mph at the time of the crash. Tempe’s police chief said the crash would have been hard to avoid under any circumstances, because the cyclist was in shadow before entering the vehicle’s path.

To determine why this accident occurred, investigators will need to look into the self-driving car’s software, its manufacturers, and what role Uber and Volvo play, in the overall functionality of the vehicle. A “safety” driver who was inside the vehicle, but not operating it, may come under scrutiny, too.

Behind the Technology

According to a report from Reuters, in 2016, Uber chose to replace its fleet of driverless Ford Fusions with Volvo SUVS. Uber also chose to reduce the number of lidar sensors, which use pulses of light to detect objects in the road. Volvos have one roof-mounted lidar sensor, whereas the Fusions had seven.

The lidar system is manufactured by Velodyne, and Velodyne’s president and chief business officer told Reuters that to detect pedestrians in the road, self-driving cars would need side lidars (not just a single roof-mounted lidar). Due to the absence of lidars, Uber’s Volvos have a three-meter blind spot around their perimeter.

Early in the investigation of the Tempe crash, it was unknown whether the lidar system was a contributing factor.

Actions Since the Crash

To test autonomous cars in California, where it is based, Uber must have a permit. The company announced in March that it did not plan to renew its California permit that was expiring at the end of the month. But it would not be able to operate its driverless cars in the state anyway – not until the National Transportation Safety Board concludes its investigation of the Tempe crash.

Arizona’s governor suspended Uber from testing its cars in the state. Nvidia, a company that manufacturers computing technology for autonomous Uber cars, said it was suspending autonomous vehicle testing, too.

On March 29, a lawyer for the Tempe crash victim’s family announced they had reached a settlement agreement with Uber.

Safety Questions About Autonomous Cars

Uber is not the only company testing autonomous vehicles. GM, Tesla and Waymo – a spinoff of Google – have been developing driverless vehicle technology. Waymo’s vehicles have already driven 5 million miles on public roads, and last October, it debuted the first “robotaxi” – a fully autonomous vehicle with no safety engineer on board – in Phoenix.

The development of driverless vehicles is outpacing the creation of applicable regulations. As companies compete to be the leader in autonomous vehicles, they may be cutting corners, with regard to safety. Regulators may need to look more carefully at what they can do to keep U.S. consumers safe, as production of autonomous cars increases.

John R. Colvin, Attorney at Law, has successfully represented injured clients throughout Tennessee and Alabama who have been seriously hurt in vehicle accidents. For more than 20 years, he has been helping victims put their lives back on track, and he is ready to help you. For advice on how to proceed next or if you have any questions about this topic, contact John R. Colvin.

Licensed to Practice in Tennessee & Alabama