Personal injury laws and regulations for self-driving cars are being tested in the first driverless car death in North America. The Vehicle Automation Report was released on November 5, 2019 by the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington , D.C. The conclusion is clear, the self-driving car was not smart enough to detect the pedestrian and react in time to prevent her death. The pedestrian was walking with her bicycle and this contributed to the vehicle’s inability to perceive the danger.
The crash that left the pedestrian, Elaine Herzberg, dead on March 18, 2018 was caused by a self-driving Volvo XC90 with an Uber automated driving system (ADS). The system was designed to operate in a fully autonomous mode, this according to the report. Both Volvo and Uber are members of the Vehicle Automation Group responsible for the November 5 Automation Report. The report claims that Uber has fully cooperated with the investigation.
Personal injury compensation to the family has not been disclosed. Uber quickly settled the family compensation case within 2 weeks of the accident. The personal injury lawyer representing the family has made no further comment as the family considers it settled.
When Ubers’s Automated driving system is activated, it performs all driving tasks, including changing lanes, overtaking vehicles, making turns, stopping at traffic lights and stop signs. In essence, Uber’s self-driving technology becomes the driver in the use and operation of the motor vehicle.
The legal use of an automated driving systems in British Columbia will stretch the definition of a driver under the motor vehicle laws and legislation. Currently, there are no laws specifically allowing or restricting the use of automated driving systems in British Columbia.
The perception system of this self-driving car was created by Uber to detect vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists. A detected object may also be classified as “other”, indicating an unknown object. The system uses a combination of lidar, radar and cameras to achieve object detection.
The software for detection of pedestrians and bicyclists has been updated to prevent the software glitch that killed the pedestrian.
Changes to the Law for Self-Driving Vehicles
Several American States and other countries have implemented laws to regulate self-driving and driverless vehicles. British Columbia appears to be lagging behind as the vehicle insurance system becoming intertwined with government. The current BC government has shifted legal changes to effect increase in insurance premiums for at risk drivers. It appears there was no consideration of providing strict liability for manufacturers of self-driving cars.
In Finland, ranked 6th in the world in the Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index, the 2017 Motor Liability Insurance Act specifically contemplates injury claims against self-driving cars. As Matti Komonen at HPP Attorneys Ltd points out,
…the new aspect covers the fact that the right of recourse is also against a person that is liable under the Product Liability Act. In principle, this now means that even the manufacturer of the entire vehicle or just a part of it can be held liable for compensation as a result of a traffic accident, if the accident was the result of a design or manufacturing defect or programming fault. According to the legislature, developing automation of the motor industry may increase product liability cases, meaning that manufacturers can no longer be overlooked.
With the software changes, Uber’s autonomous driving system (ADS) would have correctly classified the pedestrian struck. The driverless vehicle would have initiated braking more than 4 seconds before the original time of impact and death.
Legal changes now need to follow so that manufacturers are automatically held to account. One object of new self-driving car laws must be to avoid citizens becoming embroiled in protracted, expensive litigation which will absorb court time and resources.