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Rapidly Advancing Tech and Its Role in Traffic Accident Liability

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Technology changes much faster than laws can keep up. As a result, the role of advancing tech in legal situations remains a cloudy subject. Meanwhile, our artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques have become intelligent enough that innovations like autonomous vehicles are already hitting the road.

These tech advancements carry with them powerful legal implications. For example, who is liable in a traffic accident with no driver? All legal professionals should be aware of how changes in technology affect their work. Here, we explore these tech advancements, their implications, and the vigilance with which lawyers should approach the subject.

Tech advancements and the future of traffic

There is no end to the new technologies that are changing the composition of our vehicles. Artificial intelligence is chief among these developments. With the power to automate tasks typically requiring human insight, we are enabling improvements in everything from vehicle safety to fuel efficiency.

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This tech takes many forms. Right now, AI is powering all kinds of software and Internet of Things (IoT) devices that monitor, accumulate, and communicate data points. From in-vehicle sensory equipment to fleet management dashboards, these innovations change the way we drive, in turn creating liability questions for everyone on the road.

Tech absolutely has the potential to make our roads safer. But roads aren’t the only thing that is adapting to new technology. Even research for traffic accident cases can be substantially streamlined with the help of machine learning systems for digitally scanning precedent and testimony records.

As these technologies rapidly advance, these are some of the devices and systems that legal professionals should pay particular attention to:

  • IoT-enabled sensors for monitoring roads and traffic routes
  • Vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) tech allowing for real-time data collection
  • Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) improving road safety
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning processes driving smart analytics
  • Autonomous vehicles operating without a human driver

With technologies like these now prevalent among the fleet management industry, we can expect issues of liability to change and develop. For example, ADAS tech offers in-vehicle support through blind-spot monitoring, collision avoidance systems, and more. But what happens when these systems fail or glitch?

The implications of new tech on traffic accident liability

In the legal profession, the implications of new tech on traffic accident liability lead to many questions. Who is at fault when an accident occurs involving a driverless vehicle? Can you sue a computer system? How do you establish liability?

Facing little precedent and lack of consensus on the subject, the only thing we can do is examine what has occurred in high-tech legal battles so far. Two prominent cases may give us a better indication of the role advancing tech will have in traffic accident liability going forward.

Trouble for Tesla

On May 7, 2016 a self-driving Tesla Model S collided with a left-turning tractor-trailer.  The car failed to apply the brakes, unable to sense the white side of the trailer against a “brightly lit” sky. As a result, the Tesla driver lost his life. Tesla has maintained that responsibility ultimately falls upon the driver, who has to acknowledge that the self-driving feature is a test mode that still requires a human driver’s hands on the wheel.

In this instance, the blame for the accident was not placed on Tesla. However, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) did state that a lack of “safeguards” in the Tesla vehicle contributed to the accident. Nevertheless, the situation poses serious implications in terms of liability.

Legal professionals must closely monitor new and proposed regulations regarding autonomous vehicles and the sensory equipment that supports any level of automation in vehicle efficiency. This and other Tesla-involved incidents have set a trend towards liability ultimately falling on the driver. However, depending on the clarity of feature usage and user agreement wording, liability could shift to the manufacturer, as it has in cases of faulty airbags and tires.

Uh-oh Uber

In a more recent incident, a self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. The trifecta of sensory equipment—radar, lidar, and camera—that informed the vehicle’s functions failed to determine the trajectory of the jaywalking pedestrian, and tragedy occurred. Like Tesla, Uber was not found criminally liable.

This did not, however, completely exonerate Uber from civil responsibility. The company settled a case with the victim’s family. Meanwhile, regulation is still being discussed surrounding autonomous vehicles and autopilot features.

All told, we are seeing a trend towards so-called “driverless” vehicles still requiring a dedicated and focused driver to avoid liability damages if something goes wrong. Without substantial proof of neglect on the part of the manufacturer, legal challenges for vehicle tech are likely non-starters—at least as far as criminal charges are concerned.

And autonomous vehicle manufactures have a vested interest in continuing to protect themselves. In their efforts to do so, we could see considerable changes in everything from regulations to infrastructure shifts.

The legal impact of technology

Technology is a powerful tool. Recent times have seen greater shifts in virtual systems and AI assistance than ever before. As more autonomous and AI-powered vehicles make their way onto our roads, new legal regulations and precedents will take shape. This could lead to altered cities and highways, with lanes, zones, and roads designed specifically for autonomous vehicles. Smart vehicle manufacturers are likely to lobby for these changes, as it takes liability pressure off themselves.

In the meantime, technology is already playing a large forensic role in distracted driving cases. As vehicles become more and more equipped with sensory equipment, more data can be collected from traffic accidents. For legal professionals, this means new avenues of research along with emerging liability precedents to keep up-to-date on.

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