Self-Driving, Autonomous Vehicles and the Future

Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci designed a cart that could move on its own using high tension springs in the 16th century?

Since that time, we’ve come a long way in terms of self-driving vehicles. And while we’re still ways off from completely autonomous vehicles, they’re no longer the stuff of science fiction.

As we get closer to the day when human beings don’t control the vehicle their travelling in, it’s important to understand what this means for road safety and the law. With many experts projecting that this will make our roads safer, the rules of the road and how they’re enforced will be impacted significantly.

Self-Driving, Autonomous Vehicles in 2021
In their ultimate expression, self-driving vehicles are cars or trucks that use sensors and software to navigate, control, and drive a vehicle. Human drivers don’t need to take control of the vehicle in order for it to be safely operated.

As mentioned, that’s the ultimate expression of a self-driving car. But there are actually different levels of self-driving vehicles, described by researchers on a scale from 0 to 5.

• Level 0: No automation. Human beings control every aspect of the vehicle.
• Level 1: Driver assistance. A human driver controls the vehicle, but some driver assistance systems are controlled by the car one at a time (i.e. cruise control, automatic braking).
• Level 2: Partial automation. A human driver is required for safe operation and monitoring of the environment, but two or more automated functions are offered at once (i.e. acceleration and steering).
• Level 3: Conditional automation. Under certain conditions, the car can take care of all safety-critical functions, but a human driver has to take control of the vehicle when and if alerted.
• Level 4: High automation. In most driving scenarios, the car is fully-autonomous but may still require the human driver to take control under some circumstances.
• Level 5: Full automation. The car is fully-autonomous in every situation and does not require a human driver to take control at any point.

Currently, there are no fully-autonomous vehicles operating in Canada. But we do have partially-autonomous vehicles and we’re getting closer to Level 5 vehicles hitting the road every day.

Are Self-Driving Cars Safe?
While there have been a few accidents involving self-driving cars in the last few years, the numbers simply don’t compare to the over 300,000 accidents that occur in Canada every year as a result of human drivers. It’s this figure that has experts purporting that self-driving cars are safer than human drivers and will result in a lot fewer accidents on the road.

But what makes them safer? Self-driving cars have lightning-speed reaction times due to the combination of sensors and software, which means they can anticipate and react to a potential accident much faster than a human. Unlike human beings, an autonomous car doesn’t get distracted, nor can it become intoxicated. That all goes to say that, self-driving cars eliminate the element of human error that causes 94% of all serious accidents.

Potential Legal Changes and Issues
Self-driving, autonomous vehicles are new technology that’s still being developed. As such, the legal questions around their use have not yet been addressed by policy and lawmakers – and there are a lot of legal questions, especially around liability, compensation, and consent.

Liability refers to who is responsible for the damage caused by a motor vehicle accident. In a typical motor vehicle accident, the driver who was negligent when operating their vehicle is considered the at-fault party and is responsible for the cost of damage to the people or properties involved.

In regard to self-driving cars, the issue of who is liable when an accident occurs is murky, at best, and has not been written into law thus far. The law is yet to address whether the driver or the vehicle is liable in an accident with a self-driving car.

If it’s the vehicle that’s liable, then should liability be assumed by the car manufacturer, software company, or third party that installed the parts? If the driver hasn’t kept up their vehicle, do they assume some part of liability? It’s even possible that local governments can be held liable if they allowed self-driving cars to frequent the road before being thoroughly tested.

If car manufacturers are to assume liability in motor vehicle accidents involving self-driving cars, there are some questions around compensation that need to be looked at. Legal experts agree that many of these cases will pursue a product liability lawsuit, which makes receiving compensation a lengthy and complex process.

This is because most product liability cases take years to litigate. This is especially true considering that several companies are involved in the development and manufacturing of a self-driving vehicle, meaning that these product liability lawsuits will involve multiple parties.

Moreover, these companies have highly-skilled lawyers and a significant financial advantage over the average driver. While traditional motor vehicle accidents involve two or more civilian drivers, going up against a big corporation in a lawsuit will likely make compensation more difficult.

Most self-driving vehicles that are out there today come with the warning that the technology requires human intervention and monitoring on some level. But drivers’ have mental models regarding what these cars can and cannot do. Even the name “self-driving” gives the impression that the human driver is not required to operate these vehicles safely, which isn’t the case as of yet.

As such, if a driver doesn’t listen to the warnings and causes an accident, they may be able to argue that they weren’t aware of the degree of involvement required on their part. They could claim that they operated the vehicle based on advertisements from the manufacturer and therefore did not breach any duty of care.

This creates an issue around consent. Self-driving vehicles may require that the consent of the human driver is given before driving and that that consent gives them the responsibility for the outcomes of the software and hardware of the vehicle. Whether this consent will be required at the time of purchase or using a touchscreen when the car is started up is yet to be determined.

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