Robo-car death a classic example of profit vs. safety

On Sunday night in Tempe, Ariz., a woman pushing her bike across the road at an intersection was struck and killed by an Uber self-driving vehicle in autonomous mode, marking a milestone in the autonomous vehicle revolution: the first human killed by a robo-car. Early reports say the pedestrian was outside of the crosswalk at the time of the collision.

The fatality is yet another in a series of injuries caused by robo-cars, and it bodes of legal and moral controversy to come. It is also reminiscent of the death of 7-year-old Sophia Liu, who was crossing at a San Francisco intersection when she was killed by an Uber driver on Dec. 31, 2013. The Liu case sparked a massive debate on the risks associated with app-enabled transportation network companies, such as Uber and Lyft, and the responsibility of the companies for injuries caused by their operations.

The Dolan Law Firm represented the Liu family in the wrongful death claim. Christopher Dolan, along with the Consumer Attorneys of California, waged a legislative battle to mandate that TNC providers maintain $1 million of insurance for the injuries caused by its drivers, the first legislative mandate of its kind in the nation.

Since the Liu case, Uber, Google (through its Waymo division) and more than a dozen more manufacturers and automakers have been pushing the bounds of app-enabled transportation to reach their ultimate goal: a driverless transportation system. The rationale for this move is motivated by profit: If Uber can deliver its services without a driver, it can keep the full fare instead of the less than 30 percent it collects now. As always, this is a classic example of profit versus safety.

Uber first began driverless vehicle testing in San Francisco on Dec. 14, 2016, without seeking approval from the California DMV or legislature. Shortly thereafter, the California DMV demanded that Uber cease and desist driverless operations and revoked the permits of 16 Uber test vehicles. In response, Uber literally loaded its vehicles up and took them to Arizona, where there were virtually no regulations or restrictions on driverless cars.

Arizona, in its bid to woo technology companies, welcomed robo-cars without any regulations, allowing them to drive freely on its roads so long as they met vehicle registration and insurance requirements applicable to regular passenger vehicles. It should come as no surprise that the first fatality would occur on Arizona soil — where there are no regulations, there is demonstrably less safety.

The tragedy happened just days after Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey, issued an executive order designed to “update” Arizona law while instructing legislators to eliminate “unnecessary regulation and hurdles” facing this new technology. The governor’s “updates” are a sham. He simply orders that the robo-cars be in compliance with all “federal and state safety standards.” The problem is there are no definable standards in Arizona, and the federal Department of Transportation has issued no clear regulations instead deferring to the industry to set their own standards.

Ducey’s order merely continues the policy of requiring robo-cars to meet the licensing and insurance requirements of all passenger vehicles. Aside from instructing the Department of Public Safety to work with other relevant law enforcement agencies and manufacturers to develop protocols on how to interact with fully autonomous vehicles, there is no other safety component to his order.

As manufacturers and developers are being given free reign to develop their own protocols, requirements, testing metrics and reporting systems without regulation or legislative oversight, more and more unproven vehicles appear on the public streets. While robo-car companies understandably work to minimize consumer injury and wrongful deaths associated with their products, we can’t let the fox guard the henhouse when it comes to consumer protection.

In California, the DMV is taking some action to protect the consumer. California has set up a testing/permitting program for autonomous vehicles. On Feb. 26, the California DMV issued regulations permitting the operation of robo-cars without drivers or on-board safety monitors as long as they have a remote operator monitoring the car who is capable of taking over operations in the event of a system failure or an emergency. In the event of a collision, the remote operator must be able to communicate with both passengers and law enforcement.

California requires that manufacturers of robo-cars obtain a permit from the DMV before operation. As part of that permit process, the manufacturer must certify that it has trained its test drivers in the application and use of the technology as well as how to assume control of the vehicle if necessary. California also requires that test drivers have a driver’s license for three years with no more than one point against their license, no history of collisions involving injury or death and no DUI for 10 years.

Finally, California law requires that the manufacturer demonstrate he or she has $5 million in liability coverage for injury caused by an robo-car that violates the law. This financial responsibility requirement may be demonstrated by providing a certificate of insurance or sufficient evidence of “self-insurance” through demonstrating a net-worth of $5 million or more over the three-year period prior to applying for a permit.

While California may have gone further than Arizona in its regulations, the race to appear “tech-friendly” and maintain the presence of these companies in state, with their jobs and tax revenues, leaves too much self-regulation and too much risk for the consumer. Unfortunately, as is often the case, many more innocent people will be injured or killed before the robo-cars are brought under control and are made safe for the public.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

Christopher B. Dolan
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