Accidents linked to Tesla’s autopilot feature, including that fatality in Florida and the roll over in Pennsylvania, call for adult discussions on the future of driverless technology. Have we been so seduced by the future that Silicon Valley claims has already arrived that we fail to think through where the rubber actually meets the road? And what do these issues mean for commercial truckers?
If there is going to be a major shift in how a vehicle operates then there must also be a shift in how liability and culpability is determined. As of now, coverage for cars with self-driving technology is the same as coverage for regular vehicles. This is problematic because now insurance companies will need to factor in who is at fault the driver or the software. If the software is at fault what are the repercussions? Will Tesla, or Google, or any other driverless maker need to insure their software for collision liability? There is also a serious issue with insurance companies being left in the dark in terms of features. Generally, the insurer is provided with the make and model of the car but not its features. So they may be completely oblivious to whether or not the model is equipped with self-driving capability. Now, how can a company properly insure a vehicle if they are clueless as to what that vehicle is capable of?
The fatal Tesla crash also highlighted the various philosophies in driverless technology via the Tesla vs. Google plans. The Tesla plan is to offer incremental forms of autopilot or driver assist technology. They maintain that their technology is not designed to replace drivers and that drivers should remain vigilant at all times. Originally, Google was going to go down this road as well until an experiment in 2013 changed their minds. They let some of their employees sit behind the wheel of self-driving cars on their daily commute. Google engineers who were controlling/monitoring the cars saw how unaware and unvigilant the person behind the wheel was. As such they changed strategy to focus on creating a car with the driver completely out of the picture. Google created a fleet without brake pedals, accelerators, or steering wheels. This car cannot travel faster than 25 miles per hour. Making it a fine vehicle for stop and go urban areas and not much else. So far there has only been one slow speed accident caused by this car.
Another important note is training. As Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle from The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute point out in order for a person to get a license they must go through training and pass a test. For a CDL that training and testing is far more strenuous. Why should self-driving machines avoid such requirements?
Both Tesla and Google pride themselves on innovation and they have much to be proud of. But just because you have the ability to create something does not necessarily mean it’s a good idea. Innovation is supposed to enhance the society we live in and right now driverless technology doesn’t do that.