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Be Careful What You Wish For

Every single day I go through a mini panic attack when I get back home to my apartment. The worry that courses through my veins comes from the anxiety of parallel parking, something that has been taken out of the modern driver’s education program. Sure, I’ve listened to my parents explain the process and read up a few wiki-how’s: “Pull up next to the first car, reverse and cut into the curb, straighten out, pull forward a bit until you’re comfortably between the two cars…etc,” but that is most certainly easier said than done. While many of you might be cringing or rolling your eyes, there’s something menacing about parallel parking. There are plenty of days I wish I could push a button to make my wheels face to the side and just roll straight into the spot. What I’ve realized is that the automobile deities were listening when we asked for a simpler system, but instead of pivoting wheels, they have handed us truly automatic, self-driving cars.

 

Automobile makers have been playing with this idea for years and examples of this futuristic technology is prevalent throughout our society. From the Google Maps cars that drove themselves across the country, to popular culture autonomous cars like the Batmobile, Transformers, and even Herby, this almost humanization of cars has been in the works for years. It began with cruise control and has evolved into cars that sense blind spots and warn the driver of obstacles and potential collisions. Currently Ford, Audi, and Lexus are all offering vehicles that can parallel park themselves, and BMW is unveiling a car that can independently locate a vacate spot in a parking lot and pull into it (and pull in within the lines, something I wish I could do 100% of the time).

This all sounds cool, right? I mean most collisions and roadside frustrations are caused by human error after all. By automating everything there would be no more speeding, no more drunk driving, no more distracted driving, better parking, better gas usage, and commuters could nap on the way to work on their own mini metro system. This is the argument automobile producers are using to bolster the “necessity” for self-driving cars. How can a computer whose sole focus is to monitor a car’s movement and navigate to a destination get distracted? An autonomous car would know the directions as part of its brain is a GPS, and so there would be no cutting across 3 lanes of traffic to make an exit it didn’t realize was coming. An autonomous car would know that its brake pads are wearing thin and drive itself to a mechanic. An autonomous car has no emotion or feeling of anxiety so it wouldn’t be rushing through yellow or “blushing” lights to be on time to the new Star Wars movie. Self-driving cars would make roadways safer and calmer.

So, would you give up control to a car? I mean, I’ve given up control to my phone. It wakes me up, it tells me every 45 minutes to stand and stretch, it reminds me of chores, it reminds me of appointments, at this point it is such an integrated part of life I don’t think I could live without it. But technology isn’t perfect. It updates, it has bugs, and when you change phones there’s a possibility some information will not carry over. However, when my phone glitches the worst that could happen is A) I’m stranded because my GPS isn’t working or B) I forgot an appointment and will have to reschedule. If a car glitches or bugs out, what’s the worst that could happen?

When testing autonomous cars, 4 states and DC have put laws into place to permit testing on public roads as long as three criteria are reached: there must be at least 5 million dollars of insurance coverage, there must be an alert human in the driver’s seat, and the vehicle must contain a mechanism for alerting the driver in the event of a system failure so that the driver can take over manual operation of the vehicle. These are reasonable, as any car that is going to drive itself must gain some experience outside of the lab or factory where it was built, but it also needs to have safety precautions in place in case of a system failure. Tests have been going well enough that many automobile companies are boasting that consumer affordable completely autonomous cars will be available to the public as early as 2017.

Questions of safety aside, these new cars will be changing the face of the laws surrounding automobiles. Who is responsible if a self-driving car were to cause a collision? Currently, manufacturers are only held liable for damages resulting from a collision if some part or component of the vehicle is defective, malfunctions, or fails. This would carry over to autonomous cars, manufacturers would only be liable in the case of some malfunction of the operating system. This could be avoided all-together if the vehicle is equipped with an adequate system for alerting or notifying the operator that some type of maintenance or system check is required.

A driver who fails to exercise reasonable care cannot escape liability by relying blindly on technology.  As with any other vehicle technology, such as cruise control, park assist, or even GPS, a driver using autonomous vehicle technology must exercise a level of care that is reasonable under the circumstances. For example, in California, the operation and testing of autonomous vehicles is allowed but requires that the driver be seated in the driver’s seat, must monitor the operation of the vehicle, and must be capable of taking over immediate manual control if necessary.  While this is most certainly not the law in every state it does remind us that as this technology evolves we must adhere to a standard of reasonable care, whether that be staying alert behind the wheel, keeping up with software updates, or performing diagnostic tests as often as possible.

So while it would be pretty amazing to have our very own Batmobiles or Bumblebees, understand that this technology will change the automotive laws and the face of driving when they become available. For now, I’ll just keep parking in the farthest lot from my apartment where there are open spaces. I need to get my steps in you know!

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Thomas J. Curcio
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Tom Curcio, the driving force behind Curcio Law, is a dedicated trial lawyer with more than 35 years of experience in Northern Virginia. He has dedicated his career to representing people who have been seriously injured through no fault of their own. He works tirelessly to obtain the compensation his clients are legally entitled to…

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Rakin Hamad is a recent graduate of the George Mason Law School and joined Curcio Law as an associate in August 2018. Rakin works closely with Tom Curcio and staff in preparing cases from the initial client meeting through trial and has been a perfect fit for the firm. During law school, Rakin interned at…

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Julia Martinez, a Florida native, joined Curcio Law as a paralegal in 2013. She began her legal career in 1998 working at a personal injury firm that primarily handled automobile accidents, slip and falls, and products liability cases. Then, in 2008 she expanded her knowledge by working at two other law firms. She obtained her…

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Maureen Burke was born and raised in the Boston, Massachusetts area and relocated to the Alexandria area in 1984 where she and her husband raised their three children. Maureen graduated with a BS in Nursing from Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire and an MS in Nursing from George Mason University. Maureen has worked at…

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