Self-driving cars sound great. They’re safer, because they get rid of human error. The trouble is that right now they’re not ready for fully autonomous driving. What about when they are ready? What if we have cars 10 years from now that will erase human error from the equation? If these fully-automated cars come to exist, but instead of buying one you still decide to drive your 1995 Pontiac Sunfire, and then you get in an accident, will you be found to be negligent simply for failing to have upgraded to an autonomous vehicle?
Ford has announced that it will have a fully self-driving car, with no steering wheel and no pedals, by 2021. You can see an interview between a BBC correspondent and Ford President, Mark Fields here: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-37103159
Google has been working with autonomous vehicles with a variety of its technologies for many years: https://www.google.com/selfdrivingcar/
Self-driving cars seem to be the talk of the future, although some of the features already exist. Many cars have had sensors in their back-up cameras for years, and some cars warn of obstructions when turning or have other proximity measures. These features are what are called “Level 1” vehicle intelligence or automation because they take over some of the tasks that a driver used to perform. Some high-end cars such as Tesla and BMW have features that allow cruise control to also brake and accelerate while in traffic without the driver’s need to intervene. These same sorts of features enable the vehicle to read road conditions and road curvature and lines and to adjust speed and braking and even steering accordingly. These are what are called “Level 2” vehicle intelligence.
At level 2 the trouble is that drivers may feel like they are not actually driving the car, but the vehicle intelligence is only in charge of some functions, and certainly not all. The driver is still a supervisor, and should actually be just as engaged as in a car with zero automation. Tesla is currently under investigation after a fatal accident involving the use of their level 2 technology: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-36680043
We have not yet reached “Level 3” self-driving automation which is what Ford is saying they will have in 2021. Level 3 will completely remove the human factor and will allow all occupants of a vehicle to sleep, read, work, or do whatever they want. Nobody will have to drive because the car will do all of this on its own.
This summer Uber is launching a self-driving taxi service in Pittsburgh which uses Volvo’s new custom XC-90 which is a step between Level 2 and Level 3 automation where the driver “supervises” the car. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in a busy urban centre, but I venture it will be quite a while before we see these in Eastern Ontario cities like Kingston, Cobourg, Peterborough, Whitby, Cornwall, Perth, or Ottawa: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2016-08-18/uber-s-first-self-driving-fleet-arrives-in-pittsburgh-this-month-is06r7on
All of this is terribly fascinating, but what I’m really wondering is what will happen to car accident negligence law when cars reach Level 3 automation? And when that happens, what will happen to car insurance?
I’m a car accident lawyer and I work for people injured in car accidents, and never for insurance companies. Each week I examine or depose defendant drivers and their insurance lawyers about the accidents that cause my clients’ injuries. I always ask these defendants about the steps they took leading up to and during car accidents, and also about what steps they might have taken to avoid the accident. Some people are really, really negligent, as in drunk-driving or racing, but the vast majority of accidents just come down to human error and bad judgment. What happens when Level 3 cars erase these human factors?
When Level 3 fully-automated self-driving cars become a reality I pose the question “is it negligent to not own a self-driving car?” I see a scenario where any driver who gets in an accident might be found negligent if it can be shown that a level 3 self-driving car would have avoided, prevented, or even decreased the seriousness of the crash. I think it is possible that even an innocent driver such as someone who is t-boned by someone else blowing a red light might be negligent if it can be shown that a level 3 car would have assisted. Scary.
The follow-up question to this is of course “will you be able to get car insurance if you don’t buy a self-driving car?” Eventually, the answer will likely be “no”, and I anticipate that fairly early on the answer will be “yes”, but for a hefty price.
While self-driving cars may be available in 2021, I don’t think we are going to see the issues I’ve identified quite so early on. Self-driving cars will be very expensive and few in number when they first become available. Ford has said that in 2021 they will only be available to rideshare programs or taxi companies and not the general public. With this in mind, I think you’ll be fine to keep your 1995 Pontiac Sunfire ripping for a few more years (if she’ll go), but beyond that we’ll just have to see.