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The Dilemma of The Autonomous Vehicle

R. Mark Maritote June 5, 2018

When you hear about testing on autonomous vehicles, you probably think of places where live, on-the-street experiments are underway. Illinois might not be on your radar, but it so happens that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is on the list of centers conducting field tests. And if results of that research are a gauge, the possibility of realizing one of the greatest claims of self-driving vehicles – easing road congestion – might encourage adoption of the technology faster than originally thought.

We are not there yet, however. Indeed, as evidenced by the tragic death of a pedestrian in Arizona earlier this year attests, it will be awhile before anyone can declare we are in the age of the autonomous vehicle. How long it might actually take is hard to know.

That sad incident occurred in March in the middle of the night. According to investigators, a woman crossed a roadway outside of any crosswalk, but still well ahead of an oncoming autonomous Uber test SUV. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board concludes that even though the vehicle’s sensors detected the pedestrian, it didn’t stop because it wasn’t programmed for emergency braking. The NTSB says Uber practices involve disabling emergency brake maneuvers when test vehicles are under computer control to prevent erratic vehicle behavior.

There are other factors clouding the question of liability in this case. For example, the vehicle had a safety driver behind the wheel at the time, but she apparently was distracted and the system didn’t alert her to the danger. Also, the struck woman’s blood showed she was likely impaired by drugs.

The NTSB report leaves in question the ultimate cause of the crash. Still, relatives of the victim have since settled a legal claim with Uber for an undisclosed amount of money.

Every accident is unique and raises different questions. It seems apparent that fact doesn’t change when self-driving vehicles are involved. In the absence of answers, victims and their loved ones should always consult an experienced personal injury attorney to be sure their rights are protected.