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Verdict pending: Driverless car crash to challenge U.S. laws

A Tesla Model S crashed into a fire engine while on Autopilot mode. (Photo: Tesla)

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Stephan Giesler
Stephan Giesler

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Hello, automated driving community! GM and Tesla are involved in automated driving accidents, insurer Allianz wants to change the access to driving data and Europe’s start-ups need stronger support: we bring you this week’s key stories from the world of automated driving.

Last December, a Chevy Bolt was changing lanes on a Californian highway when it collided with a motorbike. Its rider Oscar Nilsson suffered neck and shoulder injuries and is now taking legal action. Nothing to write home about, you may say. And it’s true: sadly, there are thousands of those kind of accidents every day. Except that in this case, the Chevy was operating in autonomous mode. Which means that General Motors is now facing one of the first lawsuits involving an accident with an autonomous vehicle.

Like in every proper legal case, there are two sides to the story. Nilsson’s lawyer claims that the Chevy, which was running in autonomous mode with a back-up driver behind the wheel, “suddenly veered back into Nilsson’s lane, striking Nilsson and knocking him to the ground”. A GM spokesperson, on the other hand, told Jalopnik:  “The San Francisco Police Department collision report determined that the motorcyclist merged into our lane before it was safe to do so.”

Courts will have to judge what at first looks like a run of the mill civil lawsuit – but the impact of the decision could be far-reaching because it touches a fundamental legal question: are existing laws sufficient to deal with previously uncharted territory like this? This seemingly small case could soon put the U.S. legal framework to the test and to complete the “pioneer case” picture, it will be interesting to see if and how the court will get access to the Chevy’s sensor data.

Show us your data, Tesla

Speaking of data, another fundamental legal discussion surrounds liability: who pays if driverless crash? This is closely connected to the question of who caused an accident – man or machine?

As if on cue, a second accident in California made headlines last week involving Tesla’s Autopilot.

According to the BBC, the Model S “ploughed into the rear” of a parked Culver City fire engine, supposedly at a speed of 65 miles per hour (105 km/h). Luckily, no one was hurt. The car owner claimed the car was in Autopilot mode when the accident occurred.

Tesla so far hasn’t confirmed or disputed this – although Tesla is able to analyze data gathered by its vehicles to determine the cause of crashes. But just like other car companies, it is protecting this data like its own property. Insurance companies like Allianz have long criticized this “data monopoly”.

Now Allianz has come up with an interesting suggestion: an independent trustee should control and give access to the customers’ data. In case of an accident, this could help clarify the question of liability. It is an idea worth pursuing – an unbiased authority that could mediate between the interests of consumers, carmakers, insurers and law enforcement.

As for the latest incident, it should once again be mentioned that Autopilot in Tesla’s reading doesn’t mean that the car is self-driving – it is a level 2 automation driver assistance feature.

Should the statement of the driver in Culver City hold true, it would once again prove the fact that the feature's name is misleading and confuse customers.

Money, money, money: the top funded start-ups in 2017

It is not exactly an investigative revelation that investments in driverless car companies have reached lofty heights. Still, to look at the numbers every now and then can be useful for some insights.

According to Nanalyze, Shanghai based company NIO (focusing on fast EV’s with automated driving functionalities for the Chinese market) topped the list with 2.1 billion U.S. dollars’ worth of funding in 2017. Following in second place with 1 billion U.S. dollars was Pittsburgh-based artificial intelligence start-up Argo.ai, which was subsequently acquired by Ford.

Of the top 10, five companies originate in the United States, while four are from China and one is from Israel. If you are missing some European representation, that makes two of us. While past studies have shown countries like Germany or Sweden to be in a more competitive position than China, it will be interesting to watch how this unequal flow of money could potentially have an impact on their speed of innovation.

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),

Stephan Giesler

Editor-in-Chief, 2025AD

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