Honda’s Legend sedan is be the first vehicle available to the public with Level 3 self-driving … [+]
Self-driving cars — and their current hands-free precursors from the likes of Tesla
, Cadillac, Audi, and Ford — may be barreling towards an obstacle that they can all see and can’t avoid: the courtroom. And that could have a chilling effect on how rapidly consumers start adopting the very technology that’s intended to save their lives.
Right now, if you were to get into a car accident after (hopefully not while) reading this article, the issue of determining who is at fault or liable would be relatively straightforward. That’s thanks to decades of legal precedents and a clear-cut system of determining blame.
That would also be the case even if you were driving a car with a hands-free advanced driver assistance system (ADAS). These include General Motors
’ Super Cruise and its forthcoming Ultra Cruise version, Ford’s BlueCruise, and Tesla’s Autopilot system.
A user demonstrates the Super Cruise hands-free system on a 2021 Cadillac Escalade SUV.
While these systems are touted as “hands-free,” they are not “attention-free.” They require the driver to be paying attention at all times, even if their hands aren’t on the wheel.
To ensure that drivers are, you know, actually paying attention, a camera watches the driver’s eyes and triggers an escalating series of alerts and even full system shutdown if the driver fails to reengage.
Nevertheless, all of these ADAS still put the liability squarely on the driver in the event of a crash.
But that straightforward nature of liability is about to disappear.
In 2014, six levels of autonomy were codified (Level 0 through Level 5), each with increasing abilities and decreasing driver input and responsibilities. Many vehicles are sold today with Level 0, 1, or 2, though some automakers have taken to calling their latest hands-free vehicles Level 2 Plus.
It’s only when these systems advance from Level 2 to Level 3 that they cross the bright red line of driver attentiveness – and legal liability. Level 3 vehicles allow the driver to pay attention to something other than driving when certain conditions are met and the system is engaged.
The only caveat is that the driver must be able to resume control in a short amount of time, which is why upcoming Level 3 systems will be limited to under 40 miles per hour.
Right now there are zero vehicles in the U.S. that have this ability – despite significant confusion over what Tesla’s Autopilot system can and can’t do.
At the time of this writing, the only Level 3 vehicle available on the planet is Honda’s Legend sedan in Japan (it used to be sold in the U.S. as the Acura RLX), which is being offered essentially through a pilot lease program for 100 people.
Mercedes-Benz’s upcoming DRIVE PILOT Level 3 autonomous system will allow drivers to take their eyes … [+]
Mercedes in early December got regulatory approval in Germany to launch its Level 3 system in the middle of 2022. More vehicles will follow thereafter, from brands like Volvo, BMW and Alfa Romeo.
But the bigger – and more chilling – unknown element of Level 3 vehicles is who’s at fault should one of them cause a crash.
Legal and automotive industry experts say that it may be in courtrooms — especially given America’s penchant for lawsuits — where these issues of who’s at fault in Level 3 crashes will play out.
Is it the person sitting in the driver’s seat, even if the car was in autonomous mode? Is it the manufacturer of the vehicle? The maker of the vehicle’s hardware (sensors for radar, LiDAR, and cameras)? The software company that wrote the code the systems and vehicle were using?
Right now in the U.S., there’s no clear regulatory framework by the federal government for deciding fault in an autonomous or semi-autonomous crash, and various states and insurers have differing policies. Heck, we don’t even regulate who can test hands-free or self-driving vehicles on the same public roads you and I use every day.
This puts us at odds with places like Japan and Europe, which have recently started rolling out laws and regulations stipulating that the vehicle must assume liability when it’s properly operated in Level 3 modes and a crash occurs.
This uncertainty here in the U.S. has terrified both automakers and consumers alike.
Autolist.com surveyed nearly 3,400 car shoppers in 2021 about autonomous and semi-autonomous cars and the issues of who’s at fault in a crash.
The results were striking.
Thirty-five percent of people said if the driver were liable, they wouldn’t buy a vehicle with self-driving features at all. If the vehicle came with it anyway, 41 percent of people said they would never or rarely use the system – owing to the liability.
Additionally, if the driver were liable, just 13 percent of consumers said using the system would cut down on their stress levels while in use.
This hesitancy – while understandable – essentially negates the many considerable safety advantages semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles promise.
These regulatory unknowns were enough to scare off Audi’s once-ambitious plans in 2017 to roll out Level 3 capabilities in the U.S. and elsewhere. Other automakers have been wary to give firm timelines for when their U.S. vehicles might get Level 3 capabilities, citing our lack of clear requirements.
So we’ve got in the U.S. a situation where companies can test autonomous vehicles on our public roads until the cows come home, but you and I as drivers and consumers can’t then walk into a dealership and buy a vehicle with safety features honed by said testing. Stay safe out there!