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Changing Lanes: Autonomous Vehicles & The Law

Since the inception of the ENIAC computer in 1946, seemingly unfathomable technological advancements in autonomous computing have occurred. From the first digital computers completing relatively convoluted mathematical computations to the much more common and commercialized intel-based personal computers of today, which utilize hardware a fraction of the size of the original processors in early computers, which are easily capable of creating detailed worlds using augmented reality.

With little fanfare our generation has experienced arguably the greatest technological achievement that computers have accomplished to date. I’m referring to the introduction of autonomous vehicles. Naturally there will be dissension caused by my blanket claim, chiefly that I am choosing to ignore the fact that computers assisted in all aerospace and astronautical achievements, including landing on the moon and creating the International Space Station, which exists both as a residence to astronauts and as an observatory in Earth’s orbit. I am not being deliberately obtuse as to ignore how astounding an accomplishment that is. Simply speaking, the complexity and brilliance of such a monumental achievement cannot be understated. However, my claim is based on the argument that autonomous vehicles will alter the way we live and our civilization in a vastly more impactful manner in the near and foreseeable future.

On September 14, 2016 the ride sharing company Uber launched the first ever fleet of autonomous vehicles in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Uber’s immediate vision of the future is one where cars act as shuttles constantly driving around cities picking up and dropping off passengers without ever having a human component impacting the car’s ability to drive. The concept that there could be cities full of driverless cars ferrying people from place to place that is similar, but more flexible than a public transit system is very proximate to our future. However, I don’t see this as Uber, or any other company looking to use autonomous vehicles, as their final goal.

Other companies like Tesla, Google, Apple, and Amazon have all made well documented pushes into vehicle autonomy. None of these companies have ever explicitly stated what their final implementation goals are. Additionally, many of these companies have had very public setbacks in the development of their programs.

Tesla had recently reported on a very unfortunate fatal accident where the car’s “autopilot” program failed to recognize a very specific set of dangerous conditions. The vehicle struck a semi-truck trailer in a perpendicular manner, partly due to the fact that the radar guided sensors were unable to detect any mass between the trailer’s wheels and partly due to the fact that the car’s cameras had trouble differentiating between the color of the side of the trailer and the sky in the background behind the truck. The question how did this happen springs to mind.

The difficulty in developing these autonomous vehicles is evident in the complexity of the algorithms that the computer systems in the cars are forced to analyze under an infinite number of possible circumstances that can occur in everyday life, where the systems are meant to exist and function flawlessly in. Additionally, different vehicles rely on a combination of lidar, radar, cameras, infrared sensors, geo-referencing and many other systems to prevent incidents from occurring. It can be argued that the fault in this case can be blamed on the driver who may not have been driving within the speed limit or paying as much attention as he should have. However, it is possible that the connotation behind the “autopilot” system leads the driver to believe that the autonomy of the vehicle is faultless, even in spite of the myriad of waivers and warnings that were undoubtedly displayed to all Tesla drivers who choose to use this feature. In a world where consumers are bombarded with warnings and dangers, it can be argued that some consumers may be calloused to the danger and caution signs, assuming that the warnings exist due to pedantic lawyers. What didn’t help was Tesla’s lack of restraint towards its new “autopilot” system. It is completely possible that Tesla, a relatively small and newly founded car manufacturer, used its “autopilot” system as a fascinating talking point to help boost advertising and sales of their cars. In a market where people are drawn to innovation, Tesla took advantage of its “autopilot” program by marketing it as groundbreaking and unparalleled by other manufacturers. The truth is, many cars have a similar feature to the autopilot in Tesla. The system most similar to Tesla’s autopilot is the radar guided driving assist system in some Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes has also incorporated the driving assist program in its cars for longer than Tesla has sold the model S flagship. Additionally, Mercedes has yet to market any of its products like Tesla attempted to do.

The reason any of this is relevant is because no car manufacturer has perfected the technology behind autonomous vehicles as of yet, regardless of how they market it. Even the Uber vehicles driving around in Pittsburgh have a driver sitting behind the wheel to prevent any incidents.

Completely autonomous vehicles will exist in our very near future, what matters is how we react to, and incorporate them into our lives. As of now, Florida is the only state that has laws allowing completely autonomous vehicles on the road. If the law has any hope of staying on pace with technology, then the other states should strongly consider investigating the numerous benefits in allowing autonomous vehicles on public roads once they have been properly developed.