Technology Update: Driverless Vehicles, Safety, & the Law

The interplay between law and technology is fascinating and ever-changing. Areas of law such as electronic privacy were virtually unheard of a decade ago, but they are now the topic of debate in our legislatures and at our dinner tables. At The Pittman Firm, our Panama City injury lawyer works to stay informed about the way changing technology impacts Florida law. While people might assume that personal injury law is a fairly static field, it is constantly evolving to accommodate a changing society.

Florida Law on Autonomous Vehicles

One of the technological updates that we are following closely is the status of driverless vehicles. This year, Florida became one of the first states to address the issue of autonomous vehicles through specific legislation. Section 316.85 and 316.86 discuss the operation of these new vehicles on Florida roadways. The latter specifically approves their operation on Florida roadways for testing purposes. The provision requires that a human operator be present and have the ability to intervene and override the electronic operation, with an exception for testing performed on a closed track.

Additionally, the law requires that an autonomous vehicle carry $5 million in insurance. In reference to product defect litigation, subsection (2) relieves an original manufacturer from liability stemming from the conversion to an autonomous state unless the claimed defect existed prior to the conversion. The final subsection, 316.86(3), directs the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to report back to the legislature by February 12, 2014 with recommendations on further action needed for safe testing and operation of autonomous vehicles. Thus far, only Nevada and California also have specific laws addressing driverless vehicles.

Safety & Legal Concerns Relating to Driverless Cars

Are driverless cars a smart idea from a safety standpoint? Studies suggest that driver error contributes to between 80-90% of automobile accidents. Proponents of autonomous vehicles note that computers will not get distracted, become tired, or violate traffic regulations. Likewise, drunk driving would not be an issue if a computer is operating the vehicle. However, others note that machines do fail.

Critics add that a computer can only understand situations it has been programmed to recognize and say that, no matter how much data and how many rules the manufacturer inputs, there is always a risk of the unknown. A computer may also fail to make good decisions when presented with multiple risks, such as deciding between colliding with an empty shopping cart or an occupied baby carriage. Researchers note that even a small failure rate becomes significant as the driverless cars travel more miles.

Driverless vehicles will pose issues for the legal system. The DMV will have to develop regulations to govern the new technology. Privacy issues will likely arise because the computers will need to collect and maintain certain information in order to ensure vehicle performance. Additionally, courts and legislatures will have to tackle tough liability questions, such as whether an accident caused by an autonomous vehicle should be blamed on the car's occupants, the manufacturer, or the company that programmed the computer.

Our Commitment

Our Panama City personal injury firm is committed to staying informed as the law evolves to account for new technology. This is just one component of our commitment to providing the best possible representation for our clients.

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