The secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) said during a Public Listening Summit on Automated Vehicle Policy that there are over 1,400 self-driving cars in the United States, and over 80 companies currently testing the technology in what the DOT forecasts will reach roughly 33 million automated vehicles by 2040.

Technology giants like Tesla, Google, and Uber are leading the charge in producing driverless vehicles, but an increasing number of traditional car manufacturers, including Volvo, Ford, and General Motors, have also joined the highly competitive fray in an autonomous car market that is currently estimated to be worth $54 billion.

The looming question is, can fully automated vehicles operate safely alongside human-operated systems and the public?

At Roberts & Harris, our personal injury attorneys in Raleigh are keeping a close eye on the evolution of driverless technology as we investigate the potential trouble with automated vehicles, including how they can lead to potentially catastrophic accidents in our North Carolina roadways.

What are the Different Levels of Automated Vehicles?

Each self-driving vehicle brand, including Tesla, General Motors, Voyage, and Volvo, has proprietary technology that operates its cars using an onboard computer that collects data from an array of lasers, radars, cameras, sensors, and GPS technology that analyzes the vehicle’s surroundings to electronically read the road and determine the vehicle’s position.

Combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning, the collected information controls the electrically assisted steering to keep the car centered in its driving lane while helping make decisions about its next actions.

Within each manufacturer’s brand, there are designated levels of automation.

SAE International, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers, has designed a zero to five rating system detailing the varying levels of automation — the higher the level, the more automated the vehicle.

  • Level Zero: No Automation
    • The driver is responsible to do all the driving without any help from the vehicle.
  • Level One: Driver Assistance
    • The vehicle helps steer or speed up/slow down, but the motorist performs all other duties.
  • Level Two: Partial Automation
    • The vehicle helps with one or more systems while the motorist does the rest.
  • Level Three: Conditional Automation
    • The vehicle completes all duties, but the motorist intervenes when necessary.
  • Level Four: High Automation
    • The vehicle completes all driving duties even if the driver does not intervene.
  • Level Five: Full Automation
    • The vehicle completes all duties without a driver on all roads in all conditions.

Are Driverless Cars Legal in North Carolina?

The North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 469: Regulation of Fully Autonomous Vehicles in July 2017 by a vote of 119 to 1, which established regulations for the operation of fully driverless cars.

The Bill defines a self-driving vehicle as “A vehicle which has the ability to perform with tactical functions and real-time operation on roads and in traffic, without needed driver assistance.”

The legislation also established the Fully Autonomous Vehicle Committee and specifies that:

  • The automated vehicle must be registered and insured.
  • A driver’s license is not required for an automated vehicle operator.
  • Anyone riding in a vehicle under the age of 12 is required to have an adult in the vehicle.
  • The registered owner is responsible for moving violations.
  • The occupant of the vehicle has a duty to stop in the event of a crash.
  • All passengers would be required to follow the state’s current seat belt law.
  • If the vehicle is left unattended, the motor is to be shut off.

Like other states, our autonomous vehicle laws will evolve with the technology, and our skilled Raleigh personal injury attorneys will follow each legislative addendum closely.

What Dangers are Associated with Driverless Vehicles?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 94% of all vehicle collisions in the United States are caused by driver error.

With this information, the NHTSA, USDOT, and our North Carolina legislators believe self-driving vehicles could reduce traffic congestion and reduce crash injuries and fatalities particularly those caused by speeding or drunk driving.

However, both state and federal safety, legislative, and regulation leaders are still unsure how to avoid the unintentional consequences of vehicles fully operating without human direction.

Potentially catastrophic ramifications and liability questions remain for the public, automated vehicle manufacturers, software developers, parts suppliers, and the insurance industry when the unknown occurs, which could include:

  • Software bugs
  • Hacking to kidnap/ransomware
  • Hacking for terrorism
  • Hacking to steal financial information from the phone through the car
  • Hacking for clandestine assassination
  • Hardware failure leading to severe injuries or death

The multitude of unknown factors associated with automated vehicles, and their applications for personal vehicles, commercial taxis, commercial trucks, airplanes, and even space travel create a seemingly endless list of potentially liable parties when accidents occur.

Driverless Cars and the Ethical Conundrum

Outside of software failures, hacking, and other potentially dangerous scenarios that can await when fully automated driverless vehicles begin operating on our North Carolina roadways, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) conducted a massive global survey that revealed ethics preferences and regional differences regarding how autonomous vehicles should be programmed.

The current ethical issue with automated vehicles has been identified as the “Trolley Problem.”

This problem involves scenarios in which an accident involving a driverless vehicle is imminent. The vehicle then must decide — through its software and programmed technology to opt for one of two potentially fatal options: Swerve toward a couple of people, rather than a large group of bystanders.

Edmond Awad, a postdoc at the MIT Media Lab and lead author of a new paper outlining the results of the project says, “The study is basically trying to understand the kinds of moral decisions that driverless cars might have to resort to. We don’t know yet how they should do that.”

Who Can Be Held Liable for an Automated Vehicle Collision in North Carolina?

The traditional concept of negligence would technically apply in automated vehicle accident cases, and like existing traffic collisions, an investigation will reveal how the at-fault driver contributed to the accident, injuries, or fatalities.

So, what happens when the vehicle was in control not their insured driver at the time of the crash?

Can driverless cars implicate the manufacturer as the negligent party over the operator?

Could the crash theoretically be a product liability case focusing on the design and/or manufacture of the product instead of driver negligence?

What if the manufacturer is General Motors, but the technology was produced by Google?

The list of potentially liable parties who may be accountable for automated vehicle collisions could include:

  • Vehicle Manufacturers
  • Technology Companies
  • Software Developers
  • Parts Suppliers
  • Microchips Processors
  • Insurance Companies/Reinsurance Companies
  • Commercial Vehicle Companies
  • Satellite Technology Controllers

When it is time to turn to the insurance and/or reinsurance company to handle the post-accident claim, our experienced personal injury attorneys can help. We are trial-tested legal advocates who have collectively served as lead counsel in over one hundred jury trials that allowed our clients to reach the successful outcomes they deserved to improve their futures and overall quality of life.

We provide the same committed legal representation for people injured on North Carolina roadways in collisions with self-driving vehicles.

If you have been injured or lost a loved one in a vehicle collision with an automated vehicle in North Carolina, contact our skilled personal injury lawyers in North Carolina at Roberts & Harris today at (919) 249-5006 or online.

Our skilled litigators provide free consultations for all personal injury cases in North Carolina, and never charge any legal fees unless we deliver a positive outcome for your unique case.

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