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Autonomous Vehicles: Are We There Yet?


This month, the ride-sharing service Uber is rolling out its fleet of driverless cars to carry commuters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Uber has partnered with Volvo to provide a specially modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicle outfitted with dozens of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar, and GPS receivers to drive the car; 100 of these vehicles will be available to Uber by the end of 2016, and some of these SUVs are already on Pittsburgh roads. Dubbed the "Pittsburgh Project," customers request rides in the normal way--via the Uber app--and are paired with a driverless car at random. Trips with driverless cars are free for now.

Although random pairing of customers with driverless cars may sound risky (some customers may not want to try what sounds like science fiction to many), the cars are not truly driverless--yet. For now, technology and the law require that a safety driver sits behind the wheel, ready to take over manually if necessary. In addition, a co-pilot sits in the front passenger seat with a computer, taking notes on everything happening and processing the information being transmitted via the car's many sensors, cameras, etc. Nonetheless, Uber's "Pittsburgh Project" is touting Pittsburgh as the first U.S. city to have commuters riding in self-driving cars.


Pittsburgh was chosen as the test market for many reasons. The geography of the city--a challenging topography, different types of weather, many bridges--offers the chance to develop and refine different algorithms and to incorporate many different factors. Pittsburgh has world-class robotics research at Carnegie Mellon University, and cyber security research for vehicles being done locally as well. In addition, Pittsburgh is able to do the advanced manufacturing that robotics and autonomous vehicles require. Uber has an autonomous vehicle center in Pittsburgh which already employs 500 people.


Theoretically, driverless cars should be safer than their human-controlled counterparts. With 90% of traffic accidents caused at least in part by driver error, eliminating the driver should have a huge impact on decreasing the number of deaths--currently approximately 35,000--on U.S. roads annually. Computers do not text and drive, fall asleep at the wheel, or otherwise get distracted; unlike humans they have 360 degree vision, and can communicate vehicle to vehicle.

But unlike humans, computers cannot make those snap decisions about crossing a yellow line to get around a double-parked delivery truck, or proceeding through a red light to clear the way for an emergency vehicle; an algorithm would not include an instruction to break the law. Traffic laws and infrastructure would need to be updated in order to accommodate code, and some laws--such as drunk driving and speeding laws--would no longer be necessary.

Liability and insurance coverage for accidents remains a huge unknown: will insurance cover the vehicle, the technology, the manufacturer of either or both, or the owner of the vehicle? If liability for accidents and injuries caused by autonomous vehicles is based on a product liability tort scheme (design or manufacturing defect), damages could be much higher than those based on a driver's negligence. Multi-million dollar damages followed by recalls could have a serious detrimental effect on a nascent industry.

Cyber security is another issue arising with autonomous vehicles. In cars controlled by computers, the possibility of terrorists hacking into the program and wreaking havoc on U.S. roads becomes a real threat and one that must be dealt with before fleets of autonomous vehicles are delivered onto the roadways. In 2015, a class action lawsuit was filed by Stanley Law Group against automakers Ford, GM and Toyota for manufacturing vehicles that are vulnerable to cyber threats; namely, for producing cars with systems that can be hacked. The lawsuit was dismissed in January of this year for lack of proof of damages. Nonetheless, cyber security will remain an issue and only increase in importance as vehicles become more automated.


Despite the fanfare surrounding Uber's Pittsburgh Project, a truly driverless car is a long way off. The three biggest obstacles cited by experts-- legal liability (discussed above), policymakers (how to absorb the millions of newly unemployed taxi and truck drivers, how to integrate mass transit, etc), and consumer acceptance--need much more consideration. Most significantly, the software is not there yet. Despite all his failings, the human driver is hard to beat.

If you or someone you know has been involved in an auto accident, contact Dave Thomas at Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation.

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