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The Autonomous Automobile

Webster’s Online Dictionary, defines autonomous as “existing or capable of existing independently”; responding, reacting, or developing independently of the whole.[note]Autonomous.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, (last visited Nov. 13, 2017).[/note] As you may or may not know, the human body performs many of its tasks autonomously. For example, the human nervous system or autonomic nervous system, “…regulates the processes in the body that we cannot consciously influence;” including controlling our breathing and heart beats.[note]”How does the nervous system work?” National Center for Biotechnology Information, August 19, 2016. (last visited Nov. 13, 2017).[/note] The average American can imagine, and are currently, living in an autonomic world. We often use escalators that take us up and down without much intervention, and some of us use autonomic technology in our homes.[note]An example of autonomous technology in the home is the smart thermostat. These thermostats “learn[ing] your preferences and schedule, then adjusting the temperature accordingly. Dunn, Jeff,”The 10 best devices to turn your home into a smart home,” Business Insider. December 02, 2015, (last visited Nov. 3, 2017).[/note] Yet never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined an automobile would be autonomous. Perhaps if you were a fan of the cartoon show, the Jetsons, you could have possibly imagined an autonomous car.[note]““Jetsons” animated series aired for 24 episodes on ABC from 1962-1963 in primetime as a futuristic counterpart to the pre-historic animated sitcom “The Flintstones.” It followed George, Jane, Judy, and Elroy Jetson along with their robot maid Rosie and family dog Astro. The series was later revived by Hanna-Barbera in 1985 in syndication with 41 new episodes being produced.” The series included amongst other things a flying auto that worked autonomously. Otterson, Joe. 2017, “‘The Jetsons’ Live-Action Series in the Works at ABC.” Variety. August 17, (last visited Nov. 13, 2017.[/note] Well for all those who believed, and even those who did not, the autonomous auto is here. However, before you begin to cheer, or silently groan, we must address the most apparent issue that will arise from an autonomous automobiles; the auto accident. In an everyday auto accident, although this will be contested, it is clear that one or more of the humans actually driving the auto caused the auto accident. Even in a suit where additional factors contributed to the accident, the plaintiff and defendant will both contest as to the question of fault. Adding an autonomous automobile brings a new dynamic.

The future of the auto is here, and as a matter of fact it can be found in Arizona. According to a company called Waymo has “has offered free taxi rides to folks near Chandler, Ariz., shuttling people …to work, school, soccer practice, and choir rehearsal in its fleet of autonomous vehicles.”[note]“Waymo, Lyft Collaborate on Self-Driving Autos.”, 16 May 2017, (last visited Nov. 13, 2017).[/note] Apparently Waymo, a spin-off of google, has had its autonomous autos on the roads for the past year.[note]Waymo, Lyft Collaborate on Self-Driving Autos.”, 16 May 2017, (last visited Nov. 13, 2017).[/note] Although the auto is self-driven, the current autos are accompanied by a Waymo employee that is ready to take over should the auto began to malfunction.[note]Waymo, Lyft Collaborate on Self-Driving Autos.”, 16 May 2017, (last visited Nov. 13, 2017).[/note] Yet, Waymo is not alone in its pursuit to manufacture the perfect autonomous auto. At a recent company held event, General Motors Co. (GM) CEO, Mary Barra, announced that GM would also jump on the autonomous auto band wagon.[note]Ferris, Robert. “GM will test fully autonomous autos ‘in quarters not years,’ CEO Mary Barra says.” CNBC, CNBC, 24 Oct. 2017, (last visited Nov. 13, 2017).[/note] Even US regulators have come around to accepting that autonomous autos are a thing and are here to stay, as they rush to put regulations in place to monitor the safety of the roads.[note]“The “Self Drive Act” was unanimously approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in July, before Congress left for August recess, and passed the full House on a voice vote.” “It would also allow auto manufacturers to deploy up to 100,000 self-driving autos a year that don’t meet normal safety standards. In the first year, however, that number will be capped at 25,000.” Neidig, Harper. “House passes bill paving the way for driverless autos.” TheHill, 6 Sept. 2017, (last visited Nov. 13, 2017).[/note]

Unfortunately, just as most new technologies bring new legal issues, so the autonomous auto will be no different. Under our current laws, if someone is injured in an auto accident the practice is to bring a tort case, typically negligence. In a claim of negligence a “[plaintiff] must establish that the defendant owes a duty…” and “… that a breach of that duty was the proximate cause of his injuries.”[note]Bialek v. Moraine Valley Community College School District 524, 267 Ill. App. 3d 857, 862, 642 N.E.2d 825, 829 (1st Dist. 1994)[/note] Yet the average driver carries auto insurance for this very reason, which in many states is required. Thus, if an individual has automobile insurance, his insurance will generally cover the damages that are incurred, with the exception of some specific case. Just as a plaintiff would establish a duty in a run of the mill auto tort case, so would be the same for an autonomously driven auto. However, in addition to duty, the plaintiff must also prove “… that a breach of that duty was the proximate cause of his injuries.”[note] Bialek v. Moraine Valley Community College School District 524, 267 Ill. App. 3d 857, 862, 642 N.E.2d 825, 829 (1st Dist. 1994)[/note] Proving proximate cause in a standard case presents its own set of problems. On the other hand, proving proximate cause in a car accident with an autonomously driven car will be even harder. The defendant driver, when accused of being the proximate cause of the accident, will likely lay blame on the malfunction of the car as opposed to her negligent driving. A 1933 U.S. Supreme Court case involving a train and a car addresses this issue.[note]Miller v. Union P. R. Co., 290 U.S. 227, 230 (1933)[/note] In this case the Supreme Court held that a passenger of car could not be held liable for the driver’s negligent driving.[note]Miller v. Union P. R. Co., 290 U.S. 227, 230 (1933)[/note] In the case of an autonomous car the owner of the car, or “driver”—the person who sits behind the wheel, would technically be a passenger. This is based on the fact that the car is being self-driven. Thus, the person behind the wheel is simply a place sitter, doing nothing more than serving as a passenger.

Many proponents of autonomous cars may claim that car accidents are not an issue, as “Volvo promises death proof cars by 2020”—at least according to CNN Money.[note]Seriously. “Volvo promises deathproof cars by 2020.” CNNMoney, Cable News Network, (last visited Nov. 13, 2017).[/note] Granted although a death caused by a car accident is tragedy, unfortunately it is by far not unusual. According to a 2014 Chicago Tribune article, there were a total of “…nearly 1,000 roadway deaths…” in Illinois in 2013.[note]Hilkevitch, Jon. “Traffic accidents on the rise in state, to almost 800 a day.”, 23 Dec. 2014, (last visited Nov. 13, 2017).[/note] Moreover, in May of 2016 an individual died in a car accident, when his car “…operating in Autopilot mode, hit an articulated lorry.”[note]“Tesla driver dies in first fatal autonomous car crash in US.” New Scientist, (last visited Nov. 13, 2017).[/note] So it most certainly is not far-fetched to believe that an autonomous car would be involved in a car accident; even if it is said to be crash proof.

Fortunately, all is not lost. There are preemptive steps the States and Congress can take. First, they can pass laws that make it clear as to who would be responsible in cases of accidents where one or more of the cars involved are autonomous. Second, Congress can require manufactures to install emergency overrides that allow drivers to take over driving. In fact at least one manufacturer has such an option but, as of April 2017, it was not in use.[note]“The class-action lawsuit filed in December 2016 was not about trolley problems, but it was about Tesla’s decision to not use its Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) system when a human driver is pressing on the accelerator pedal. This decision was blamed for preventable accidents, such as driving into concrete walls.” Lin, Patrick. “Here’s How Tesla Solves A Self-Driving Crash Dilemma.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 5 Apr. 2017, (last visited Nov. 13, 2017).[/note] Such options should be mandatory. Finally, Congress can require that insurance companies’ policies explicitly outline, and make clear to consumers, what will and will not be covered in the cases of auto accidents involving autonomous cars. Because, it is only with the joining of both the force of government and the innovation of auto manufacturers that the roads will truly be safer.