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Driverless Cars: Are They Safe?

Driverless Car at Geneva Auto Show

For many years, fictional television shows, movies, and books displayed the wonders of driverless cars. Today, driverless cars may become more common on the road. It seems that driverless cars line the roadways the future as more and more people are jumping on the bandwagon due to inventors at Google and Tesla, to name a few. The autopilot feature manages its own speed in traffic, change lanes, and even park on its own. Although they grab the attention of the media, drivers do not yet sit behind the steering wheels. But a recent accident involving a man killed after crashing into an 18-wheeler tractor trailer with the autopilot on his driverless car engaged. How safe is this feature and driverless cars?

What is autopilot?

Autopilot is an enhanced version of cruise control. The features uses cameras, radar, ultrasonic sound, and other software to navigate the roadway. The car automatically responds to traffic ahead by changing lanes or adjusting speed using this technology. The car should avoid hazards and reduce the amount of work that the driver has to do. Although a driver cannot nap behind the wheel, the enhancements provides a driver with one step past the cruise control technology – all to hope to reduce the number of car accidents.

NHTSA rating for driverless cars

Google_driverless_car_at_intersection.gkThe NHTSA has five levels to serve as guidelines for autonomous driving (numbered 0 to 4).

  • Level 0 – no degree of automation. The driver has complete control over the car and is entirely responsible for controlling every aspect of the car.
  • Level 1 – some basic technological help, such as electronic stability control or pre-charged brakes. Almost every car on the road today meets this level.
  • Level 2 – combined function automation. It specifies the use of several functions at once, such as lane centering and cruise control.
  • Level 3 – allows the car to take over completely in certain situations like highway driving. But the car expects the driver to take control.
  • Level 4 – requires no assistance from the driver to get from point A to point B in no time.

What happened in Florida?

Florida was the first known fatal accident where the autopilot feature was engaged. The driver of the driverless car was apparently watching a Harry Potter movie while behind the wheel. He was apparently driving so fast that the truck he crashed into did not even see him. This crash was a significant setback and public relations nightmare for the creators of the driverless car. It appears that the car’s sensors system against a bright spring sky failed to distinguish between the sky and a white eighteen wheeler. The creatos warned the driver of the autopilot car  to always pay attention while operating the driverless car and keep his hands on the wheel, but he failed to follow these directions.

Some concerns with driverless cars

Some of the main concerns with driverless cars is that they are in the level three territory, which still requires the driver to remain in control of the vehicle and alert at all times, but this lulls people into thinking that the car is a level 4. Many youtube videos have emerged where drivers of these driverless cars are reading the newspaper, playing games, and doing other activities while using the autopilot feature. If the driver was using a level 4 car, this would be completely fine, but since the driverless cars are only level 3, these activities are very dangerous. Some have even called for companies to rename the autopilot function since it sounds too much like the driver can sit back and relax while the autopilot takes over.

So, is a driverless car safer?

Driverless Cars GoogleWhen one looks at the big picture, driver error is the leading cause of car-accident related injuries. In fact, driver error is responsible for ninety four percent of the car accidents in the United States. Some people believe that driverless cars will save thousands of lives each year. Seeing as how the autopilot system has caused only one death in 130 million miles of road, and Americans average one death per 94 million miles driven, the driverless system may be safer. Even though these cars are labeled “driverless”, drivers still need to remain alert and attentive while behind the wheel. Since these cars are only level three, they are not completely automatic.

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Ronald F. Wittmeyer, Jr. practices plaintiffs' personal injury law at his office in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

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