By: Davina Seoparsan

Can you think of a time when you were driving and thought, “I wish I could be doing something else?” Maybe you have a meatball sub to eat? Maybe you had makeup to apply? Maybe you had notes to review before a big test? Short from taking public transportation or using a private transportation service, there are not many options for safe multi-tasking while driving. But what if the car could do the driving for you?

Forbes has predicted that over the next decade, a self-driving feature will be as common as cruise control.[1] Google, one of the leading companies in self-driving cars, has already stated their intent to have completely autonomous vehicles on the market in a few short years.[2] Though self-driving cars offer convenience and bring the excitement of futuristic technological developments, are they really a good thing?

 

The Reality

 

Would people actually use self-driving cars? Yes. The autonomous vehicle industry is projected to be worth around 7 trillion dollars in the next 30 years.[3] Though there will likely be a transition period for those who are more skeptical to autonomous technology, the market is huge for these types of vehicles. By bringing in trillions of dollars, the economy will likely be stimulated by the purchasing, maintenance and advertising of these self-driving cars.

Of the nearly 1.3 million people that die in traffic fatalities every year, 94% of the deaths are the result of human error.[4] One of the appeals of self-driving cars is that they would be able to reduce traffic accidents caused by human error.[5] In addition to saving lives, self-driving cars could drastically reduce the 500 billion dollars that are lost in traffic accidents annually around the world.[6]

 

The Technology

 

Many aspects of self-driving cars already present, as modern cars already perform complex tasks without the driver’s doing, including braking, steering, and objection detection.[7] Tesla is one of the most popular electric car manufactures and has been in the spotlight for its development of an Autopilot feature.[8] Though Autopilot can control steering, braking and acceleration, some have criticized the feature because it is inherently difficult to remain attentive when technology has control over driving tasks.[9]

 

 

 

The Accident

 

How safe is Autopilot? A recent survey of Tesla users found that twenty-eight percent of respondents believe that Autopilot had saved them from a dangerous situation, while 13% said the feature had actually put them in one.[10] The first person known to die using Autopilot was Joshua Brown, whose “Model S” Tesla vehicle crashed into a truck that turned across his path in Florida, in May 2016.[11] Both Joshua and the technology were unable to see the truck coming in its path.[12]

Tesla and the Autopilot feature have attracted controversy due to another recent fatality. Dr. Omar Awan was burned alive following a fiery crash in his Model S Tesla, after his car veered off the road and hit a tree.[13] The car’s lithium battery caught on fire, and the door handles malfunctioned.[14] Awan, who survived the impact, was unable to exit and rescuers were unable to free him, due to the retractable door handles on the Model S.[15]

 

The Case

 

A wrongful death suit has been filed following Awan’s death.[16] “After the Tesla hit the tree, [Awan] was alive,” the suit notes, “He had no internal injuries or broken bones. He died from the smoke he inhaled as he sat locked inside.”[17] Stuart Grossman, the attorney for Awan’s family, says what makes the doctor’s death doubly tragic, is that Awan purposely chose the Tesla Model S over luxury cars because he was concerned about the environment and safety, both of which Tesla have advertised heavily.[18]

In Awan’s case and others, Tesla has argued that high-speed crashes can result in fires whether the car is powered by gasoline or batteries.[19] The lawsuit further asserts that the features rendered the car “defective” and “dangerous” — the door handles compounding the problem of an “inherently unstable” battery. “[20] Tesla failed to warn users about the scope and extent of the defective and unreasonably dangerous conditions of the Model S,” the complaint says.[21]

 

The Future

 

At least 41 states and the District of Columbia (DC) have considered legislation related to autonomous vehicles.[22] That being said, there are still many questions surrounding the future of autonomous vehicles. Who will be held liable for crashes involving self-driving vehicles and regular automobiles? Will Tesla accept responsibility or modify their designs pending litigation? Will other companies, like Google, learn from Tesla and add safety- features to their models? Only ti

[1] Daniel Araya, The Big Challenges in Regulating Self-Driving Cars, Forbes (Jan. 29, 2019, 9:00AM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/danielaraya/2019/01/29/the-challenges-with-regulating-self-driving-cars/#7571800bb260.

[2] Waymo, https://waymo.com/tech/.

[3] Supra note 1.

[4] Automated Vehicles for Safety, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, https://www.nhtsa.gov/technology-innovation/automated-vehicles-safety.

[5] Id.

[6] Accelerating the Future: The Economic Impact of the Emerging Passenger Economy, Strategy Analytics, https://newsroom.intel.com/newsroom/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2017/05/passenger-economy.pdf?cid=em-elq-26916&utm_source=elq&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=26916&elq_cid=1494219.

[7] Jack Boeglin, The Costs of Self-Driving Cars: Reconciling Freedom and Privacy with Tort Liability in Autonomous Vehicle Regulation, 17 Yale J.L. & Tech. 171 (2015).

[8] Tesla, https://www.tesla.com/autopilot.

[9] Id.

[10] Mark Matousek, Over 90% of the 5,000 Tesla Model 3 owners surveyed by Bloomberg said they believe Tesla’s most controversial feature makes them safe, Bus. Insider (Nov. 5th, 2019) https://www.businessinsider.com/tesla-model-3-owners-say-autopilot-makes-them-safer-2019-11.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] In re Awan v. Tesla Inc., 19-021110 (Fla. Broward County Ct. Oct. 10, 2019).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] See id.

[17] Id.

[18] Reis Thebault, A Man Died in a Burning Tesla because its futuristic doors wouldn’t open, lawsuit alleges, Wash. Post (Oct. 23, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/10/23/man-died-burning-tesla-because-its-futuristic-doors-wouldnt-open-lawsuit-alleges/.

[19] Id.

[20] In re Awan v. Tesla Inc., 19-021110 (Fla. Broward County Ct. Oct. 10, 2019).

[21] Id.

[22] Self-Drive Act, H.R. Rep. No. 115-294 (2017)

image source: https://www.roboticsbusinessreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/AdobeStock_Self-DrivingCars-Activities-1000×500.jpeg

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