by Luke Dalton
Elements of basic technology were introduced into our vehicles decades ago. Over time, the adapting and interfacing of technological modalities have been slowly, even incipiently, integrated into our vehicles.
Today, many of our vehicles utilize both short-range and long-range connectivity through wireless interfaces to support features such as tire pressure monitoring, telematics and Smart Key keyless entry/ignition start. These interfaces include Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, radio frequency, Global System for Mobile Communications/Code Division Multiple Access and Universal Mobile Telecommunications System.
For some time, our vehicles have also used several self-driving technologies, including collision avoidance, drifting warning, blind-spot detectors, enhanced cruise control and self-parking. Still, not many years ago, the thought of driverless vehicles seemed like a remote and distant possibility. However, the technology that will be utilized in our vehicles has progressed rapidly, more so than many in the legal community previously thought possible.
From recent news, society is learning more about the future of technology in our vehicles, and the resulting legal issues that may arise. In late 2015, Tesla released a self-driving feature called Autopilot to customers in a software update. Through outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, we are now learning about Uber’s plans to utilize self-driving vehicles as soon as this month to transport passengers around Pittsburgh.
The Federal Government seems to be encouraging the development of self-driving automated/autonomous vehicles. The U.S. Department of Transportation John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center prepared a preliminary report in March 2016 identifying instances where existing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards may impede the introduction of automated/autonomous vehicles. More recently, during his remarks at the 2016 Automated Vehicles Symposium, Mark Rosekind, Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), outlined many benefits of technology in our vehicles. He spoke of a future “where vehicle automation and vehicle connectivity could cut roadway fatalities dramatically.” Further, the technology will assist disabled and elderly people in reclaiming the independence and freedom allowed by a personal vehicle.
However, as we have also seen in recent news, there are potential dangers associated with connected and automated/autonomous vehicles. For example, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has noted that researchers found our vehicles’ wireless interfaces—if not properly secured—may be exploited to gain access to in-vehicle networks, and to take control of brakes and other safety-critical functions. After widespread news coverage of an accident in Florida involving a Tesla Model S using the Autopilot feature, we have also seen that automated/autonomous vehicles will be involved in catastrophic events. Governmental agencies and members of the legal community have been working to keep pace with technological innovation in order to anticipate and address these dangers, while still embracing the use of technology in our vehicles.
In 2014, the NHTSA issued a summary of cybersecurity best practices to address the growing cybersecurity risks associated with vehicles equipped with advanced electronic control systems. The SPY Car Act of 2015 was introduced in the U.S. Senate, which would have directed the NHTSA to issue motor vehicle cybersecurity regulations. Some have called for governmental agencies to take further actions. The GAO recently called for the Department of Transportation to define its role in responding to vehicle cyber-attacks.
This year the NHTSA announced its belief that it retains authority over automated vehicle technologies, systems, equipment, software and after-market software updates, such as Tesla’s Autopilot feature, as “motor vehicle equipment.” The NHTSA noted that a defect in a vehicle’s hardware, software, and other electronic systems “may be considered a defect of the motor vehicle itself,” and that unique safety risks are presented by software installed in or on a vehicle.
According to the NHTSA, a software failure or safety-risk constitutes a defect when the software has manifested a safety-related performance failure, or otherwise presents an unreasonable risk to safety. The NHTSA noted:
To avoid violating Safety Act requirements and standards, manufacturers of emerging technology and the motor vehicles on which such technology is installed are strongly encouraged to take steps to proactively identify and resolve safety concerns before their products are available for use on public roadways.
Issues caused by connected and automated/autonomous vehicles will likely raise novel issues under current state laws. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2015, sixteen states introduced legislation related to autonomous vehicles.
In 2015, legislation was introduced in North Carolina that would have directed the NCDOT to study how to implement autonomous vehicle technology on the roads and highways of North Carolina. Is it now time for North Carolina to analyze its criminal and civil laws and regulations in preparation for the expected widespread introduction of automated vehicles?
Some of the legal issues that courts will be presented with because of connected and automated/autonomous vehicles may include how coverage under North Carolina’s vehicle liability policy will be interpreted when accidents are caused by software in vehicles. Courts may be called upon to address novel issues when analyzing the applicability of North Carolina’s product liability law to accidents caused by software that was downloaded as a software update after the sale of the vehicle. Moreover, products liability and personal injury litigants will face new and likely costly challenges when addressing whether software was the actual and proximate cause of any vehicle accident.
It appears that the Internet of Things and the widespread use of technology in our vehicles will continue to be an integral element of our society. The legal community and lawmakers in North Carolina should take note and prepare to address issues that will arise from the use of highly utilitarian, but sometimes risky, technology in our vehicles.
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