A moment of distraction. Misjudging the amount of time or space available to make a turn or stop the car. Following too closely. Speeding. The list of human errors that occur while driving goes on, with each mistake, every misjudgment or miscalculation putting drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and everyone else on the road at risk.
Proponents of autonomous vehicle technology say they have the answer. They claim that artificial intelligence in cars can help to greatly reduce the incidents of human error that are so often to blame in car accidents. This, they say, will cut down on the number of car accidents and make our roads safer for everyone. These same experts believe that self-driving cars will be even safer. In a country where road traffic accidents are among the leading causes of death for people ages one to 54, this must be good news. Or is it?
A recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tracked the number of accidents involving autopilot and driver-assist systems over the course of 10 months in 2021 and 2022. The study revealed a high number of accidents involving vehicles using autonomous technology and artificial intelligence. Beginning July 1, 2021 and continuing through May 15, 2022, the NHTSA catalogued 392 incidents in which six people died and five were seriously injured. According to an article in The New York Times, the study is part of the NHTSA’s effort to “determine the safety of advanced driving systems as they become increasingly commonplace.”
What is autonomous technology in cars?
Major automobile manufacturers are working hard to develop and deploy advanced levels of semi-automated vehicle technology. From Tesla to Mercedes-Benz to Ford and Toyota, it seems every brand is focused on integrating this new technology into its cars. But what role does autonomous technology play in cars and does driver-assist technology actually improve safety?
The NHTSA recognizes six levels of automation, beginning with Level 0 which involves no automation, and going up to Level 5 which is full automation:
- Level 0. This level of automation is defined as “momentary driver assistance.” The human driver is fully engaged and in control of the car, but a driver-assistance system offers help in the form of warnings and alerts such as forward collision warning or lane departure warnings, and emergency safety interventions such as automatic emergency braking.
- Level 1. At this level of automation, the driver-assistance system provides continuous assistance through one function at a time. For example, the system may help with acceleration or steering, but not at the same time. Similarly, it may assist with either braking or steering, but the driver must control one of the functions. Adaptive cruise control, which helps cars maintain a specific speed, is a good example of this level of automated technology. Lane-keeping assistance is another.
- Level 2. Here we see automation beginning to ramp up, as the driver-assistance system provides continuous assistance with two functions. This means that at Level 2 automation, your car can control acceleration and steering, or braking and steering, at the same time. As with the previous levels of automation, the driver must remain fully engaged and attentive at all times.
- Level 3. This is the level where automation begins to play a more significant role in operating the car. The NHTSA describes this level as “Conditional Automation” because the driver-assistance system “actively performs driving tasks while the driver remains available to takeover.” At this level, the system drives the car while the human driver must stay alert and engaged in order to take over driving at any moment if the system can no longer operate.
- Level 4. Described as high automation, Level 4 still requires a human driver behind the wheel but does not require the driver to maneuver the vehicle at all while the system is engaged. Per the NHTSA, the system is “fully responsible for driving tasks within limited service areas while occupants act only as passengers and do not need to be engaged.” It is worth noting, however, that a licensed driver must be capable of taking over for the automated system at any time if necessary.
- Level 5. The robots have taken over. Not really, but at this level of automation, the vehicle is fully capable of operating itself and a licensed human driver is not required to even be present, much less able to drive the car. This technology is the goal for fully automated trucks, at some point. For passenger vehicles this level of automation could someday be used in taxis or other ride-sharing services. Uber, for example, began testing driverless cars in 2018.
While only the first few levels of automation are currently being tested and integrated into passenger cars, the NHTSA study shows that this technology may not be as perfect as proponents would have us believe.
Driver-assist systems can cause car accidents
As the data compiled in the NHTSA study reveals, automated driver-assist systems are not perfect. Car accidents still happen and, just like car accidents involving human error, the results can be deadly. Software malfunctions are currently the main cause of accidents involving autonomous technology in cars. If, for example, the software does not recognize a potentially hazardous situation, it may not adjust accordingly the way a human driver would under the same circumstances. This can involve any number of things, including locational hazards such as unanticipated roadway conditions, a large animal unexpectedly entering the car’s path, or a vehicle stopping suddenly in the roadway.
Of course, having a computer system driving the car leaves open the possibility that the system can be hacked, allowing someone to remotely take control of the car. This can put the car’s occupants – and everyone else on the road – in danger.
In addition to software malfunctions, the first few levels of automation do not fully remove the possibility of human error. Additionally, a driver who relies heavily on the driver-assist system to control one or more of the car’s functions may not be prepared to take full control of the vehicle the moment it is necessary, which may lead to an accident.
When it comes to avoiding or minimizing a car accident, every moment counts. The few critical seconds it takes a driver-assist system to recognize and react to a potential hazard – or for a human driver to take over if the system fails or malfunctions – may be the difference between minor injuries and a catastrophic or even deadly outcome. As autonomous vehicle technology and driver-assist systems continue to advance and grow in popularity, it is possible that we will see these features involved in more car accidents.
If you or a loved one were in a car accident caused by someone else’s negligence, it is important that the person or entity responsible is held accountable – whether that is a vehicle manufacturer or a human driver. The skilled Richmond personal injury attorneys at Phelan Petty can help. We will fight to ensure you receive the compensation you deserve. Call us in Richmond at 804-980-7100 or fill out our contact form to schedule a free consultation. Serving all of Virginia.
Michael Phelan is a Virginia trial attorney who practices with a special focus on traumatic brain injury (TBI) cases, pharmaceutical and medical device claims, product liability cases, and truck accidents. Michael’s peers have consistently recognized him for his excellence as a trial lawyer, and his clients have praised him for his commitment to deep research, his outstanding communication skills, and his sincerity and dedication.