In July the Portland Press-Herald announced that Maine’s largest city would be one of seven locations across the globe to test new software that specifies traffic restrictions and rules for self-driving cars.
The platform, called AV Road Rules, was developed by INRIX, a Washington-based technology company. The software is designed to serve as a guidebook to assist autonomous vehicles in detecting speed limits, one-way streets, crosswalks, stop signs, and other road conditions.
Self-driving vehicles are being hailed as a solution to traffic congestion and human errors like distracted or drunk driving. In January Governor LePage issued an executive order establishing the Maine Highly Automated Vehicles Advisory Committee. He stated that public safety is his greatest concern about driverless cars, and that the advisory committee will oversee coordination in covering policy and legal issues in addition to infrastructure needs..
Concerns about the safety of autonomous vehicles appear to be valid, particularly at this stage. When self-driving cars ‘learn’ local regulations using sensors, cameras, and datasets, results can be imprecise, which increases the risk of one vehicle running a stop sign or shooting through a crosswalk and hitting another car or a pedestrian.
Recent Safety Incidents
On March 18 of this year, a pedestrian was struck and killed by a self-driving Uber SUV in Tempe, Arizona. The woman, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, was wearing dark clothing and crossing a poorly-lit street at night. Federal investigators found that the vehicle was not programmed to stop for obstruction in its path: although sensors detected the pedestrian and concluded that emergency braking was needed to avoid a collision, the system couldn’t activate the brakes.
Uber stated that emergency braking maneuvers were disabled while its cars were under computer control, to avoid erratic vehicle performance. A federal investigation revealed the following:
- The safety driver riding in the SUV and monitoring its performance was responsible for hitting the brakes- although the onboard computer detected the pedestrian from around 82 feet away, it didn’t alert the driver, whose eyes were not on the road at the time.
- A search of the safety driver’s cellphone indicated that she was streaming a program on the Hulu app at the time of the collision.
This incident is believed to be the first fatality involving a fully autonomous automobile. Nearly one week later, on March 23, another occurred, this one in California. In this case, the Autopilot feature was active when a Model X SUV collided with a concrete highway lane divider, causing the driver to suffer fatal injuries.
Data pulled from the wrecked vehicle showed that the driver’s hands were not on the wheel for six seconds prior to impact, despite several visual warnings and one audible warning as the concrete barrier drew close.
Drivers Are Still Responsible
At present, self-driving technologies are driver assistance tools as opposed to actual driver replacements. Those behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle are still responsible for driving safely. The ease with which the technology handles regular highway driving gives the impression that the technology is as ‘intelligent’ as the driver, resulting in drivers who relax their vigilance and may even take their eyes off the road.
The year 2017 was the deadliest on the streets and roads of Maine in over a decade. A total of 171 highway fatalities was tallied: the director of the state Bureau of Highway Safety within the Maine Department of Public Safety commented that this number represented the most vehicle-related deaths since 2007, when 183 people died. Twenty-one pedestrians were also killed, the highest toll in records dating back to 1993. These statistics were dismal enough for the state to launch a public safety campaign.
Companies continue to test and improve the technology that underscores self-driving cars. In case of an accident involving any motor vehicle, those who are injured or lose family members should know and understand their legal options.
What’s the Bottom Line?
Self-driving cars are progressive, but they may also present a safety risk to both pedestrians and other motorists. If you are injured or a loved one is killed because the driver of an autonomous vehicle let him or herself become distracted, contact the experienced personal injury team at Fales & Fales, P.A. We have years of experience in dealing with motor vehicle collisions and will help you hold a negligent driver responsible.