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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

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Automated cars generate questions of safety, legality

Google+Car
Photo by PROVIDED
Google Car

It’s a familiar experience for most drivers — the tire screech and sudden jolt of a road accident, followed by insurance claims to establish the party at fault. The day may soon come, however, when one of those drivers isn’t human.
Google and several other tech companies are developing cars that can drive by themselves, no humans needed. Google hopes to give drivers more freedom and safety, but automation technology also opens some questions about who, if anyone, is legally at fault in future accidents.
Jason Wagner, an associate transportation researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute, said to understand the new twist vehicle automation throws at road legality, one must first understand the levels of automation.
“An automated vehicle is a simplistic term because it describes a range of automations,” Wagner said. “There are vehicles today you can consider automated because they have the ability to operate independent of the driver’s control.”
Wagner said there are five different classifications. Cars rated at levels one and two have either one or two automated functions. Levels three and four indicate fully automated prototypes under development.
“The car’s level of automation will determine who is at fault when automated cars crash into another car, pedestrian or object,” Wagner said.
The cars under development by Google have sensors to detect objects up to 200 yards away in every direction. The software processes large volumes of information to ensure safe navigation of the road.
Wagner said incidents between fully and semi-automated cars fall into a grey zone whose legality has not been developed or fully explored. There are proposals that would require cars to have a black-box like structure that could recreate crashes, showing if the human or computer system is more liable.
Wagner said when a fully-automated car crashes, it falls solely on the company or people who built the machine but may differ in other circumstances.
“The driver is responsible for a certain percent of control and the vehicle responsible for a certain percent of control,” Wagner said. “You would probably expect that liabilities for a crash would result somewhat proportionate to the amount of driver control involved.”
Insurance premiums could also change, as cars become more automated.
“If a car has a safety feature that is much safer than other cars on the road, you expect to see insurers reducing rates because there are fewer collisions occurring so they [companies] would pay out less,” Wagner said.
Wagner said the rules and regulations that are needed to clearly define how automated cars will fit into the transportation system have not been addressed since cars are still in the development phase.
“Generally, laws and regulations on products tend to follow the market instead of lead it,” Wagner said.
Chris Urmson, leader of Google’s driverless car program, said in a press video that the car’s ability to handle uncertainty is being improved every day.
“We can take all of the data cars have seen over time and infer what other vehicles and pedestrians should look like,” Urmson said. “This can help cars anticipate what will happen next by driving in different environments.”
Still, some students are skeptical. Anna Cook, interdisciplinary studies sophomore, said she is hesitant to drive or ride in automated cars because they are still new.
“Their sensors may not be able to react to unexpected circumstances, it may not be able to react soon enough or in the right way,” Cook said. “I think it would take a lot of time and people in order to be safe about it.”
Ashley Mercier, biology freshman, said she supports the idea but would need more testing before she would feel comfortable riding in one.
“I do support the idea, but I think it’s scary,” said Mercier. “You don’t know what it would possibly do.”
As the new industry matures, Wagner believes companies will be less inclined to let individuals own automated cars since there is such high-tech, expensive equipment on the car.
“At least in the early days while some of the costs are still pretty high, I think the business model, where it’s a shared vehicle, makes a lot more sense. If the costs come down with technology, then I think that can change,” Wagner said.

“The car’s level of automation will determine who is at fault when automated cars crash into another car, pedestrian or object,” Wagner said.

The cars under development by Google have sensors to detect objects up to 200 yards away in every direction. The software processes large volumes of information to ensure safe navigation of the road.

Wagner said incidents between fully and semi-automated cars fall into a gray-zone where legality has not been developed or fully explored. There are proposals that would require cars to have a black-box like structure that could recreate crashes to determine whether the human or computer system is more responsible. 

Wagner said when a fully-automated car crashes, it falls solely on the company or people who built the machine, but may differ in other circumstances.

“The driver is responsible for a certain percent of control and the vehicle responsible for a certain percent of control,” Wagner said. “You would probably expect that liabilities for a crash would result somewhat proportionate to the amount of driver control involved.” 

Insurance premiums could also change as cars become more automated. 

“If a car has a safety feature that is much safer than other cars on the road, you expect to see insurers reducing rates because there are fewer collisions occurring so [companies] would pay out less,” Wagner said.

Wagner said the rules and regulations that are needed to clearly define how automated cars will fit into the transportation system have not been addressed since the cars are still in the development phase. 

“Generally, laws and regulations on products tend to follow the market instead of lead it,”  Wagner said.

Chris Urmson, leader of Google’s driverless car program, said in a press video the car’s ability to handle uncertainty is improved every day.

“We can take all of the data cars have seen over time and infer what other vehicles and pedestrians should look like,” Urmson said. “This can help cars anticipate what will happen next by driving in different environments.”

Still, some students are skeptical.  Anna Cook, interdisciplinary studies sophomore, said she is hesitant to drive or ride in automated cars because they are still new.

“Their sensors may not be able to react to unexpected circumstances, it may not be able to react soon enough or in the right way,” Cook said. “I think it would take a lot of time and people in order to be safe about it.”

Ashley Mercier, biology freshman, said she supports the idea but would need more testing before she would feel comfortable riding in one.

“I do support the idea, but I think it’s scary,” said Mercier said. “You don’t know what it would possibly do.”

As the new industry matures, Wagner believes companies will be less inclined to let individuals own automated cars since there is such high-tech, expensive equipment on the car.

“At least in the early days while some of the costs are still pretty high, I think the business model, where it’s a shared vehicle, makes a lot more sense. If the costs come down with technology, then I think that can change” Wagner said.

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