In mid-October 2016, a shipment of beer packed into an 18-wheeler truck wound its way through Colorado. The event is not newsworthy, normally. On this day, however, this was a ground-breaking achievement for a company developing autonomous, or self-driving, trucks. The truck driver sat in the sleeper portion of the cab and watched the steering wheel instead of sitting at it. The 53-foot long big rig loaded with over 2,000 cases of beer drove itself on Interstate 25. The driver resumed control of the truck when exiting the Interstate. The inaugural trip signifies an enormous technological achievement. For truck driving accident attorneys, there is cause for concern.
South Florida truck driving accident attorneys understand that the law lags behind technological advances. As of this writing, very few states have legislation or regulations that govern the operation, maintenance, certification, registration, or compliance of autonomous trucks. Florida, on the other hand, is at the vanguard of state legislation designed to facilitate autonomous vehicles using state roads safely and efficiently. Florida’s law permits the use of self-driving cars as long as a licensed operator is controlling the vehicle. Curiously, the person controlling the vehicle does not have to be physically present in the car when the operator engages the vehicle’s autonomous features.
Florida’s self-driving vehicle law raises many questions about liability. For example, in 2016, Florida amended its statute to protect vehicle manufacturers from liability if the manufacturer did not install the autonomous features in the car. The statutory change makes sense. On the other hand, the statute raises questions about liability when the operator is not in the car and a crash occurs. Long, protracted legal battles will ensue over the responsible party, or parties, when an accident occurs that involves a self-driving car. Florida’s legislature and courts will need to determine an answer to this question, and many others, that arise during litigation.
The federal government and specifically the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lag behind in developing autonomous vehicle safety regulations. In September 2016, the NHTSA announced its “Federal Automated Vehicle Policy.” The NHTSA announced the policy based upon the foundation that technological developments are inevitable; that safety improvements are necessary; and that everything “unknown today will be a known” tomorrow. NHTSA seemingly acknowledges that we will experience many growing pains as technology develops and systems increase in safety and reliability.
The NHTSA premised its autonomous vehicle policy on the idea that self-driving vehicles will make automotive transportation virtually risk-free due to the elimination of the human element. The NHTSA cited statistics from 2015 proving that human error or bad decisions caused 94% of all motor vehicle crashes. The NHTSA sees automated vehicles as the means to eliminate human mistakes by designing the car or truck to make the driving decisions or to correct and override human intervention thereby dramatically increasing highway safety.
The NHTSA’s guidance discusses other security issues in its guidance. Issues such as cyber security, the ability of the truck to conform to changing traffic regulations from location to location while maintaining the capacity to violate the rules in an emergency are critically important to the safe operation of the automated vehicle. Rapid adaptation to changing road conditions, weather conditions, and response to others driving are all issues that need to be ironed out before automated vehicles dominate our roads.
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