News Room

Makers of Self-Driving Cars Hit the Brakes

Written on behalf of Brian Kabateck
April 19, 2018

It’s been nearly a month since California’s Department of Motor Vehicles gave the green to allow fully autonomous vehicles to operate on the state’s roads and freeways. But none of the approximately 50 companies in the state said to be working on self-driving cars, has applied yet to the DMV for the permits. It appears the self-driving car industry has hit the brakes on the rush to submit the paperwork that would let them put a driverless car on the open road.

Uber, Waymo, and Tesla are some of the tech companies and automakers that have begun to expand testing of their self-driving vehicles in cities around the country. The companies claim that the cars will be safer than regular cars because they take easily distracted humans out of the driving equation. But the technology is still relatively new, and just now starting to experience the unpredictable situations that drivers can face.

In March, an autonomous Uber car killed a woman in the street in Tempe, Arizona, in what appears to be the first reported fatal crash involving a self-driving vehicle and a pedestrian in the U.S. Tempe police said the self-driving car was in autonomous mode at the time of the crash and that the vehicle hit a woman, who was walking outside of the crosswalk and later died at a hospital. There was a safety driver inside the car at the time of the crash but was not paying attention to the street until seconds before the impact. Arizona governor Doug Ducey suspended Uber’s self-driving vehicle testing following the fatality. Ducey told Uber’s CEO that video footage of the crash raised concerns about the company’s ability to safely test its technology in Arizona. He said he expects public safety to be the top priority for those who operate self-driving cars. After the incident, Uber settled with the family of the pedestrian that lost her life. A lawyer representing the family of the deceased victim said that “the matter had been resolved,” but didn’t reveal the settlement terms.

Tesla Motors has also been in the spotlight for its fatal accidents that have stemmed from self-driving cars. It was the first company to disclose a death involving a self-driving car in 2016 when the sensors of a Model S driving in autopilot mode failed to detect a large tractor-trailer crossing the highway. The car drove full speed under the trailer, causing the collision that killed a 40-year-old man who was behind the wheel of the vehicle. In another incident, California police officers found a Tesla that was stopped in the middle of a five-lane highway and found a driver asleep behind the wheel. The man said the vehicle was in autopilot, and he was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. In March, a 38-year-old man died after his Tesla model X which was on autopilot collided with a highway barrier in Mountain View and caught fire.

While ride-hailing giant Uber and electric carmaker Tesla are facing serious safety investigations, neither company is backing away from the autonomous vehicle technology that played a big part in the two recent fatalities. Despite this, Uber still envisions self-driving cars a key part of its business. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi stated that at the end of it all, self-driving cars will be safer than humans, but that at the moment, self-driving cars are still in the learning stage. Uber is coordinating with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), both governmental regulatory bodies. The tech executive said he has ordered a review of the safety processes of the self-driving-car testing program, which, he says, is still temporarily halted.

New technology in the auto business is favorable, but the innovations must not compromise the safety of people which is the main priority. Challenges for autonomous cars still remain, and the realistic time frames for getting them onto the road will likely be prolonged as a result of these recent accidents. Nevertheless, they still represent an important step forward in improving the overall safety of everyone on the road.

Brian Kabateck is a Los Angeles trial lawyer and a preeminent leader in the fight to ensure access to the justice system. By wielding his extensive legal and political skills, Mr. Kabateck has become an influential advocate in the courtroom and at the California State Capital for consumers’ rights and protections. He’s the incoming president of the Los Angeles Bar Association and a recent past president of the Consumer Attorneys of California (CAOC).