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May 4th, 2018

The Future of Self-Driving Vehicles and the Law

Self-driving cars? Fifty or sixty years ago, that was the stuff of science fiction fantasy. You might have seen one on The Jetsons, but not on Main Street. Now they’re a regular feature in news stories and, someday soon, they may be coming to a neighborhood street near you.

The future of automobiles is exciting. It’s also unsettling. How do we interact with our driverless counterparts? Are they safe? Can we trust them to make the right decisions? Are they even legal? What happens if you get into an accident while riding in one? Do you call a car accident lawyer or a product liability lawyer? It’s time to explore some of the critical legal issues surrounding self-driving cars.

Are Self-Driving Cars Legal in Texas?

Like most states, Texas doesn’t ban self-driving vehicles. Actually, like most states, it doesn’t say anything at all. Until recently, it was a given that a human was sitting behind the wheel, operating the vehicle. Not anymore.

However, those legal loopholes allowed companies like Google, Uber, and Tesla to test their autonomous vehicles without breaking any laws. The only catch? A driver had to sit behind the wheel, even if he wasn’t physically driving the car.

The good news is that the laws are beginning to catch up with the technology. In 2017, Governor Greg Abbot of Texas signed a bill that allowed manufacturers and tech companies to test autonomous cars on the state’s roads—no backup driver necessary.

Texas Senate Bill 2205 also weighs in on the issue. It permits driverless vehicles as long as they comply with the traffic laws, carry insurance, and record video of their trips. The law also holds manufacturers responsible for any traffic violations or accidents, so long as no one else has modified the vehicle or its software.

Are They Safe?

Texas isn’t the only state that has started to tackle the driverless phenomenon. So far, 33 states have introduced legislation and 22 (along with Washington, DC) have passed laws relating to autonomous vehicles. Many demand that autonomous vehicles pass a driving test. California requires manufacturers to disclose data such as GPS coordinates, times, destinations, etc.

Yet is all of that enough to prevent self-driving car accidents?

The Atlantic magazine recently delved into that issue. As the author points out, the real world is full of tricky situations. What if a shopping cart or tree juts out onto a single-lane highway? A human motorist would know what to do without thinking: drift over and drive around the object. A robot, on the other hand, might see the double yellow line and come to a complete stop, risking an accident with the car behind it and blocking the flow of traffic.

What if the car needs to speed up to maneuver around a dangerous situation, thereby breaking the speed limit? A driverless car may stick to the letter of the law, leaving it in a perilous position, while a human driver would most likely take evasive action, even if it meant violating the traffic laws. Or, what if the car faces a choice between hitting one cyclist and five pedestrians?

What Does the Future Hold?

Humans are used to making snap decisions based on complex information. Could a robot do the same? So far, autonomous cars don’t yet seem able to distinguish between what is technically correct and what might be the best course of action.

That may change in the future as the technology improves, but such scenarios raise other ethical questions, particularly since the results will not be based on split-second decisions, but rather on pre-programmed choices.

On the other hand, automated vehicles may be able to improve upon our driving record. After all, human error is one of the leading causes of car crashes. When it comes to split-second decisions, we’re wrong at least as often as we’re right, and previous tests have shown that robotic cars can avoid many of our most common mistakes.

Still, both the technology and the law have a long way before they catch up to the reality of life on the road. In the meantime, those who are unfortunate enough to get into a crash with a driverless car will need to find lawyers capable of navigating such thorny legal issues.

What if You Get into an Accident?

Have you been involved in a collision with a driverless vehicle on a Texas road? Contact the auto accident attorneys at Schechter, Shaffer & Harris, L.L.P., Accident & Injury Lawyers to get expert legal advice. We stay up to date with all the latest auto accident trends, including self-driving car accidents.

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