By now, most of the country has learned that an Uber autonomous vehicle was involved in a fatal collision with a pedestrian in Tempe, AZ. Uber has subsequently halted all their testing nationwide until an investigation can be completed.
While the benefits and pitfalls of so-called "self-driving" vehicles are going to continue to be hotly debated, the reality is that they are going to become part of our everyday lives. Whether we like it or not.
Another reality that we must face is that regardless of whether the vehicle is driven by a human or by a computer, there are going to be collisions. Some of them will ultimately be fatal.
So like any investigation of this type, the NTSB is going to try to determine, what was the cause of the accident? Hopefully, how could it have been prevented?
But there also is going to be another phase to this tragedy. There are going to lawsuits. Lots of them. The lawsuits are going try and answer such important questions like:
- Should the vehicle have been operating in an autonomous mode in a crowded area?
- Should vehicle have been able to sense or identify the pedestrian even though she was not in a crosswalk?
- What was the role of the backup driver?
- Could the backup driver have prevented this crash?
- Who is responsible? The programmers? The backup driver? The pedestrian? No one?
I think the number of questions that can be asked at this point is almost limitless. Consequently, as more of these types of incidents occur, more questions will be asked.
In my opinion, it is going to take years before we become comfortable with the idea that autonomous does not mean flawless.
I foresee a new legal specialty coming into vogue. Just like we have had divorce lawyers, bankruptcy attorneys, and injury lawyers. We will likely see attorneys that specialize in investigating, defending and prosecuting cases involving autonomous vehicle crashes.
I think it is what we call progress.