The year is 2020 and I am driving east in Nevada heading for a meeting I am hosting in the morning. Well, I’m not really driving. Instead my car it doing the chore. I’m tired and have had a couple of drinks so I switch it into autonomous mode and catch some sleep. Its going to be a long day tomorrow and I need to be fresh.
This is the perfect place for autonomous driving. It is “America’s Loneliest Highway” with almost no traffic and straight sections that go on for miles broken by short segments of hilly curves.
Years ago I watched some students prepare an autonomous driving car for a competition sponsored by DARPA. Their entry was based on a Lotus Elise and sported all manner of radar and infrared scanners feeding a specially programmed computer that would allow it to navigate a circuit of cones. It wasn’t very fast, but it was early in the game.
The effort was a good one, but not good enough to win the coveted DARPA prize.
Many years have passed and computers have increase a hundred fold in power and sensors have become far more discrete and sensitive. To the point that autonomous cars are sold to the public. While the price is high the benefits espoused by the proponents of the technology are safety, security, and economy. In my condition it appears to be the perfect solution.
I am jarred awake by the car proving its worth in a panic stop to avoid hitting an animal that jumped out and crossed the road. While I would rather have been able to sleep I am grateful that I wasn’t the one that had to react as I doubt that in my present condition I could have done as well as the car’s computer.
Not long after that I nod off again secure in the knowledge that this will be a chance for me to get some much needed rest and be ready to check in to my hotel later in the evening.
I am having a very bad dream full of loud noises and flashing lights. But its not a dream. I am hanging upside down in the car and the air bags have deployed leaving me with a pronounced ringing in my ears and an acrid smell of some kind of explosive filling my lungs. Outside the car is where the flashing lights are coming from. Red, blue, mostly red with some bright flashes of white light. There is something going on but my hearing is so confused that I’m not quite sure where its coming from. Being upside down is very disorienting.
Soon someone is shouting at me to see if I’m all right. I cough out as positive response as I can and see that hydraulic cutters are working to free me from what is left of my car. What happened?
A trip to a local hospital to confirm that my injuries are relatively minor and then I call my lawyer.
She tells me that I don’t have to worry about a thing. There are already a couple of cases where my model of car has autonomously driven into an accident. It appears that under a specific set of circumstances the software tries to divide by zero and send the vehicle off the road.
My insurance company tells me everything is going to be fine as well and that I have full replacement coverage. I don’t think though that I will purchase another autonomous driver just yet.
Then the news comes to me. The car has been impounded and the car company has contended that the fault is mine. I have modified the car and the state has opted to relieve them of any liability if the car has been modified.
Modified? I don’t recall modifying the car.
When the original tires wore out I found that the model tires were only made for new car sales. Some kind of deal where the tire company and the manufacturer work out a specific tire just for rolling off the assembly line. I didn’t enjoy the ride of the run-flats so I went to an online supplier and ordered a highly rated set of tires along with a set of good looking alloy rims. Bad decision as that is considered enough of a modification to exempt the manufacturer from liability. But there is more.
The new wheels and tires required tire pressure monitor sensors as well since the original ones were broken as the old tires were dismounted. The manufacturer contends that the replacement TPM sensors were not up to their standards and were probably initialized incorrectly since they were not installed at a dealership. How do I know?
Soon I find out that a host of other “modifications” existed on my car. The brake job that I had performed did not use factory approved materials nor were they programmed properly to provide accurate information to the car’s computer system. The tire size did not conform to the computers program to control speed and acceleration. There was also criticism that my last alignment did not properly initialize the electronic steering of the government mandated stability control.
I had also failed to come in for updates to the computer that were available at the dealership. There had been no recalls, but technical new letters had been distributed to patch the software when the cars came in for routine service. I had chosen to have my car serviced through a local independent service garage where all the technicians were certified.
All the above is fictional, up to a point. Nevada has passed twenty-two pages of legislated rules to govern driverless vehicles. Some states, such as Florida, are attempting to tackle the liability issues. That state’s legislature has exempted the original car maker from liability if the self-driving vehicle was modified.
Self-driving capabilities MIGHT be a positive development in motor vehicles. The concept holds the promise of safer driving and more economical fuel consumption. Certainly a computer will not get distracted, sleepy, or inebriated. But computers operate by the rules humans develop. Computers were developed to solve the problem of humans making errors in computations and today the hardware is impressively powerful and accurate, but the programming is still done by human brains and hands and is subject to the same errors.
In order to retain liability from the manufacturer it would seem that once you buy your self-driving vehicle you will have to have everything done through that manufacturer’s service facility including all replacements. You will still have the option of buying your fuel some place else though.