Ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft are a convenient alternative to calling a cab. Once users download the company’s app and register an account, they can start booking rides. Although ride-sharing services can be more expensive than a cab, it’s what people want.
In an attempt to cut costs and increase profits, both Uber and Lyft have launched self-driving autonomous vehicles into their ride-sharing fleet. Large corporations like Google and Ford all plan to launch self-driving taxi services at half the cost of Uber.
Although Google’s autonomous vehicle technology (Waymo) seems to be ahead of the curve, their cars aren’t perfect. One of Waymo’s cars crashed when the safety driver fell asleep at the wheel and disabled the self-driving software by touching the gas pedal. If it’s that easy to make a potentially fatal mistake, there is definitely cause for concern.
Another concern is the rate at which driverless cars are being sideswiped and rear-ended. Wired.com published a chart detailing 49 self-driving crashes in 2018.
After all the kinks are worked out, autonomous cars are projected to reduce the 40,000 fatalities on U.S. roads each year. Until then, there have been and will continue to be accidents and unfortunately, fatalities.
Safety drivers don’t make self-driving cars safe
Autonomous driving technology has a long way to go before cars can be let loose without safety drivers. However, the presence of a safety driver doesn’t make an autonomous vehicle safe. So-called safety drivers often get too comfortable and let their guard down, losing the ability to respond quickly. For instance, in March 2018, a self-driving Uber vehicle in Arizona – with a safety driver present – killed a pedestrian walking a bicycle across the street. The safety driver was streaming a TV show on her phone instead of watching the road.
Too late to make a difference, Uber’s safety driver swerved, but failed to brake until after impact. Reports show the car’s sensing technology had identified the pedestrian six seconds prior to impact – long enough for the car’s automatic braking system to engage as the car approached the pedestrian. However, Uber admittedly disabled the automatic braking feature to prevent a jerky ride. Still, the courts found Uber not to be criminally liable. Uber has suspended testing of autonomous vehicles.
There are no laws on the books that govern self-driving technology
The incident in Arizona is believed to be the first time a pedestrian has been killed by a self-driving car. State and Federal laws don’t govern self-driving technology, so Uber was let off the hook. However, the safety driver’s toxicology report came back positive for marijuana and methamphetamine. AZ Central reported that officials found the safety driver to be “inattentive” and her “disregard for assigned job function to intervene in a hazardous situation” contributed to the crash. While the outcome of the case has yet to be published, it’s clear the safety driver might have some liability for the incident, but it’s not enough.
Ride sharing is a largely unregulated industry with a large number of safety concerns. Passengers and drivers have been assaulted, kidnapped, and even murdered. Adding self-driving cars into the mix just adds further risk.
It’s time for new liability laws across the nation for ride-sharing
Some cities, including Chicago, are aggressively pursuing the regulation of ride-sharing due to the risks posed to passengers. For example, many insurance policies don’t provide coverage when a vehicle is being used for commercial purposes. Yet, Uber and Lyft don’t provide insurance to their drivers. This leaves injured passengers potentially unable to recover compensation. Imagine if the incident in Arizona resulted in injury rather than death. Who would be held liable to pay the injured party’s bills? Uber, or the safety driver?
A person already puts their life at risk when getting into a ride-sharing car. When that rideshare is an autonomous vehicle, with or without a safety driver, the risk increases.
Self-driving taxis are the future, like it or not
Currently, a person’s chance of getting an autonomous vehicle as a ride share is slim. However, once self-driving cars go mainstream, and autonomous taxi fleets take to the streets, it will be impossible to know if the taxi called will be driverless. When it shows up, you’ll have to take it or leave it. Technology goes where it goes, and eventually, all will be called to adopt it or be left behind.