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Autonomous, or self-driving vehicles have been in the news a great deal recently, and now they are even beginning to appear on our streets and highways. In fact, Olivier Garret, CEO of Maudlin Economics, predicts that by 2030, one in four cars on the road will be autonomous. (Though he admits that may be a conservative estimate.)

Every time there is a significant shift in the way people have done something for decades, if not centuries (the first automobile ran on December 31, 1879), the change may be met with a mixture of apprehension, enthusiasm, anticipation, and often speculation. Extensive research (and yes, some speculation) exists about the effect of self-driving cars on the future of transportation. We’re here to provide answers to some commonly asked questions about autonomous vehicles:

What Exactly Is a Self-Driving Car?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines “self-driving” according to these levels of automation in self-driving vehicles:

  • Level 0: No automation; the driver has full control.
  • Level 1: Certain features (for example, brake assist and stability control) exist to lessen the severity of a crash.
  • Level 2: Some automated systems (like lane-centering and adaptive cruise control) can work together, but the driver must still pay attention to the road.
  • Level 3: The vehicle can function independently, but the driver must be ready to take over if instructed to do so by the vehicle.
  • Level 4: The vehicle can function in and monitor the driving environment in some situations, but the driver still must be ready to take control if needed.
  • Level 5: Full self-driving automation; drivers are now passengers because the vehicle has taken over driving entirely.

Who Is at Fault in an Autonomous Car Accident?

Establishing liability in accidents involving autonomous vehicles can be challenging for a few reasons. For example, vehicles will have varying levels of autonomy for the next several years at least. Who was in control at the time of the accident - the driver or the vehicle? If the vehicle was in control, did the driver have enough time and the ability to take over the vehicle before the accident? In the case of a now infamous 2016 fatal accident involving a self-driving Tesla vehicle and a truck, the car was in full autopilot mode at the time of the crash. An investigation revealed no defects in the vehicle’s design or performance. It was determined that even in autopilot mode, the driver still needed to be paying full attention to the surroundings to avoid an accident. Tesla was not found liable in the accident.

How Will Self-Driving Cars Affect Auto Insurance?

It is expected that self-driving cars will bring change to the auto insurance industry, but how much change remains to be seen. Some predictions state the car insurance sector could shrink by 60% by 2040. Some automakers are already establishing industry standards that could affect the auto insurance sector. In 2015, Volvo pledged to take total responsibility if one of their self-driving vehicles got into a crash. On the other hand, in its Asian market, Tesla has been bundling auto insurance and maintenance into the purchase price of their vehicles. As the 2016 Tesla case proved, it can be hard to pin liability entirely on a machine; many times, human error comes into play. In general, as long as there is a way for humans to regain control in a self-driving vehicle, there will still be a need for liability insurance.

How Will Self-Driving Cars Affect the Future of Transportation?

Are driverless tractor trailers next? Research conducted by Allied Business Intelligence asserts that it is not likely that driverless trucks will take to the highways anytime soon. However, commercial vehicles and buses may be used in more confined, slow-moving spaces such as airport terminals and college campuses. You could also see your favorite businesses pay for your ride in order to get you in their doors.

While it may seem futuristic to be talking about driverless cars, some industry experts believe they will become the norm within ten years. If you have any questions about who was at fault in an accident involving a self-driving vehicle, contact Whiting Law for a free consultation.

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