Car makers looking at accident choices of self-driving autos

Self-driving cars have moved from a futuristic idea to a reality that is on the verge of availability to drivers in the United States, and Nevada residents are already among the first to experience the new wave. In March of 2012, Nevada passed legislation allowing autonomous vehicles to be tested on the state’s roadways. According to the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, while legislation and regulation currently only apply to testing, this type of vehicle will soon be for sale to the general public, perhaps even as early as 2020.

The fact that many of these automobiles are already manufactured or are in the development process can be a serious cause for concern for an auto accident lawyer in Las Vegas. Automakers must be able to create artificial intelligence that can be responsible for evaluating risk factors and making difficult decisions before the vehicles will be safe to use. The choices that are made by the manufacturers can be a matter of life or death for those who ride in the cars, as well as those on the road around them.

Defining “autonomous”

Technologies that perform essential functions or take over in certain situations are already installed in most vehicles. Even though they can override driver actions, most of these driver assistance systems are not considered “autonomous” by the state of Nevada. This includes the following programs:

  • Electronic blind spot assistance
  • Crash avoidance
  • Emergency braking
  • Parking assistance
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Lane departure warnings

According to Nevada legislation NAC 482A.010, an autonomous or self-driving vehicle must meet certain criteria to be considered safe and legal on the roadways. The key feature denoting autonomy is the technology that performs the mechanical operations of driving without a person actively controlling or monitoring the functions. However, Nevada law requires that there still be an operator, and this person is identified as the one who engages it, whether inside or out of it. While an autonomous vehicle is in the testing phase, the law requires people to be riding in both front seats. Before it can be used in autonomous mode, the vehicle also has to have a certificate of compliance, which is issued by the state.

Complex risk factors

The goal of automakers in creating self-driving vehicles is to make the roadways safer. Sensors, GPS and cameras work with the artificial intelligence software to analyze road conditions, traffic and surrounding issues. If traffic flowed in a predictable pattern, drivers followed all traffic laws and road conditions were consistently clear, there would be little to worry about when autonomous cars hit the road. Unfortunately, driving a short way and seeing even one of those ideal situations for the entirety of the trip is rare. Driving is a complex task with numerous variables and irregularities that requires a person’s full attention.

Every time a person gets behind the wheel of a vehicle, there is risk involved that may come from many unknown factors. A driver must make decisions contingent on the observations of the traffic around the vehicle. Sometimes, these include tough, split-second choices between two bad situations when a collision is unavoidable. For example, if a pedestrian makes a sudden move into the roadway, a driver has to make a split-second decision. The options include swerving one way or the other, or going straight. If there are other pedestrians on one side and oncoming traffic on the other, the driver’s reaction should be the one that could cause the least number of injuries and fatalities.

The Google car

For the developers at Google, the “ethical decisions” that have been encoded into the vehicle walk the line between the safest position on the road and the need for information to make future safe decisions. This compromise is made based on how much data can be gathered during a move, the odds of causing an accident and, if an accident is unavoidable, how much damage one choice would have over another. If the probability multiplied by the degree of risk is not as great as the need for the information gained, then the car makes the move. The Google software would determine a sideswipe to be a much lower risk than a head-on crash, and hitting a pedestrian would be exponentially higher than the head-on crash.

Assigning liability

The operator of a self-driving car must be able to trust the software to make decisions typically relegated to human judgment. A Las Vegas auto accident lawyer may wonder whether the operator, the manufacturer or the designer of one of the vehicle’s components would be at fault in the event of a collision. Automobiles may be programed with options that allow drivers to take over control of the vehicle in traffic situations, as some automated tractor trailer programs do. Another factor to consider is whether there will be risks that arise from those who do not properly maintain their vehicles, and those who hack into the computer systems of their vehicles and make modifications.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that there were more than 250 motor vehicle crash fatalities in Nevada during 2013. Whether or not a self-driving car will be able to bring down the number of deaths each year remains to be seen. Victims of motor vehicle crashes often sustain permanent disabilities and lose the ability to earn a living. Medical bills, expenses and lost quality of life add to the pain and suffering experienced. A Las Vegas auto accident lawyer may be able to help victims receive the compensation entitled to them by law.