Ten with Ben: Episode 11 – Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving cars or Autonomous vehicles

Hi, I’m Ben Schwartz,

Today we are going to do another episode of Ten with Ben. Today we’re going to talk about a topic that is near and dear to my heart. It is something I am very much looking forward to, but about which I am very apprehensive as well. The topic is self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles. I have to tell you that I just want to give you my perspective and tell you why this is something that I am thinking about, and why this is something at the top of my mind.

First off, I’m an attorney and most of the cases I handle are personal injury cases. Most of the personal injury cases are cases that involve car accidents, truck accidents, motorcycle accidents, or roadway accidents where someone is injured or killed. That is the vast majority of the cases that I handle. In those cases, almost all the time, we are looking at a situation where there has been some degree of inattentive driving. Let me give you a story about what I’m talking about when I say inattentive driving. It seems to me that when I talk about inattentive driving, everybody has their own definition for it. I’m just going to tell you a story. When I was fresh out of law school, I took the bar, passed the bar exam, and got sworn in as an attorney. The first case I handled was a case for my father’s best friend Charlie. Charlie was driving this car and he stopped to make a left-hand turn. He had to wait for oncoming traffic to pass and while he sat there in the lane of travel with his left turn signal on, a guy was driving behind him in the same direction, some distance behind them, and that guy was smoking a cigarette. He dropped the cigarette on the floor and he went down to pick up the cigarette when he came back up, holy smokes, he realized Charlie had stopped in front of him and he didn’t have time to stop. He ran into the back of Charlie’s car. It tore up both of Charlie’s shoulders. Charlie had me file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver. That is a classic case of inattentive driving. The guy was inattentive. He was not attentive of what was going on in front of him, as a result, he caused an accident.

There are a lot of other types of inattentive driving as well. People that get distracted due to cell phone use. People get distracted tuning the radio, or eating, or God knows what else. We see all kinds of cases. We see truck drivers who are not following hours of service requirements or not getting enough sleep and they shouldn’t be on the road. As a result of being sleepy, they get into accidents because they can’t pay attention. There’s a million and one different examples of inattentive driving, but that is what is causing deaths. That is what is causing injuries on the United States roadways and freeways, if you want my humble opinion.

The reason why I’m excited about self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles is because I think it should eliminate most if not all of the inattentive driving that’s killing tens of thousands of people every year. I think that it should significantly reduce the number of car accidents if you can take that inattentive driving component out of it. So I’m excited about it. I just have some questions about these types of accidents, I have some questions about these types of scenarios. My number one question is, and I have been asked this question numerous times, even though at this time that I am recording this video, the roadways are not full of self-driving cars. But still, people contact me or ask me this in social situations. The question is, if I’m injured or killed in an accident involving a self-driving car or an autonomous vehicle who do I sue? I think it’s a good question.

When you read the articles, when you look at the news reports, when you see what the self-driving cars are going to be like, I think that in the beginning we’re not talking about cars without steering wheels. In the beginning you’re talking about technology that allows you to let the computer take over while you are behind the wheel. If you are still behind the wheel, you are still maintaining responsibility and control for that vehicle. It does not permit you to now become inattentive just because the self-driving mechanism has taken over the operation of the vehicle. In my mind, it’s more like cruise control than a robot taking over. So my answer is, if you are in an accident and you’re injured, or a family member is injured or killed in a self-driving car accident, we are going to be looking at the operator of the autonomous vehicle to determine whether that operator acted reasonably in taking back control the vehicle in order to avoid the accident. So the answer in my mind is, you sue the driver of the self-driving car, because that person is still responsible. There is no law that I’m aware of in any state in the United States that says, hey you can get a self-driving car and just let it run and you’re no longer responsible. Let its computer be responsible. I don’t think that’s the situation. I don’t think that’s going to be the situation.

The second question that I have, and it is really something that I have been struggling with, hopefully it is not something you have been struggling with too. These are the type of things that I’m sorta thinking about when I am driving around, taking out the trash, or taking a shower, this is the stuff when I am laying in bed thinking about how the world is going to be. This is the question I ask myself –  Are the autonomous vehicle manufacturers going to tell drivers about their death choice algorithm? Here’s what I mean by that, you know an algorithm is a decision making tool. It is a rule that you follow that helps you choose between this course of action and that course of action. When you program a computer, you program a robot, you have to program it to function according to certain algorithms. As human beings we all are on this planet and we all, for the most part, in 99.99999 percent of cases, in that many cases, we are following a self-preservation algorithm. So when you see someone who’s not following a self-preservation algorithm, that’s the type of person that gets a medal or a movie made about them. Think about the movie Saving Private Ryan. Those soldiers when to get Private Ryan, not because they are trying to preserve their own life, but because they are trying to preserve someone else. They made a movie about that.

Another example is, I watched a movie Seal Team Six the raid on Osama Bin Laden. I watched that this past Sunday. I’ve actually watched it several times, I really enjoy that movie. When Seal Team Six goes into the compound to try and locate Osama Bin Laden, there’s a woman that comes rushing at them. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should watch it. There is a woman that comes rushing at them and the Lieutenant jumps on her and she goes to the ground. The narrator says, this is what the Lieutenant did and the reason he did it was because if she had been strapped with explosives, he was looking to take the blast and save the lives of the team members. It’s something that is notable when someone is not following the natural algorithm, which is the self-preservation algorithm you’ll know it. They will make a movie about it because it’s that rare.

When they program a self-driving car, they have to program in an algorithm and so what algorithm is going to be programmed in? Is it going to be programmed with self preservation, or is it going to be programmed to follow an algorithm such as avoid getting in accidents with school buses? If you’re in an autonomous vehicle and you are approaching an intersection and a big yellow School Bus full of children runs out into the intersection, is your car going to have the algorithm that requires it to force the bus off the road killing the school children? Or is your car going to have the algorithm that decides that your car will run off the road killing you? That is something you should know about before you get behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle. Is the car manufacturer going to tell you about that? Are they going to volunteer to be liable, legally responsible, when they set that algorithm and make your choice for you?  Are they going to give you control over what algorithm is programmed into the AI, into the computer, into the robot for making that decision? What is the death choice algorithm? It is a question that I have. It’s a question that as a personal injury lawyer, as a wrongful death car accident lawyer, that’s something that I envision is going to result in a lot of litigation.

My third question is, what’s Plan B? I use computers all the time. I use a cell phone all the time. It’s a great cell phone, I love iPhones and my MacBook, but the technology crashes. My computers crash. My phone crashes, it stops sending and receiving emails and I have to shut it down and restart it. What happens when the self-driving cars computer goes on the fritz?  What is the Plan B? Will there be a backup computer that steps in and takes over when the computer crashes? I don’t know. But that I think is going to result in litigation too.

Finally I ask myself in this scenario, is the government liable? Most states and Municipal governments have some form of Tort Immunity, a law that says they cannot be sued for money damages for causing injuries or death. I wonder if the general public realizes that there are communities, there are states, that are inviting autonomous vehicle manufacturers to come test the vehicles in their cities, on their roadways? Do you realize that if your government where you live or where you work is allowing autonomous vehicles to be tested in your community? Do you realize that you are the guinea pig and is your government making some allowance so that it can be sued when it makes a bad decision about who to allow to do testing? Is your government going to volunteer to allow itself to be sued when it fails to adequately supervise those companies that are testing the autonomous vehicles?

These are the question that I have. If you are watching this video and find this information interesting, please leave me a comment or send me an email. I would like to know if other people out there in the community are also thinking about these things. And if so, what do you think about this? What are your concerns? What are your answers to these questions? I’m attorney Ben Schwartz, thanks for watching this episode of Ten with Ben.

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