This March, in Washington, D.C., ten U.S. senators decided to approach major car makers Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and other companies developing self-driving cars to determine whether they are using or planning to use contracts with consumers that would limit their ability to sue in the case of a crash.
The letter headed by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., comes as concerns are growing on Capitol Hill about autonomous vehicles and the potential for companies to use forced arbitration clauses in contracts with drivers or passengers to limit the liability of carmakers and ride-sharing operations in the event of a crash.
Proponents of self-driving cars say that people often fear new technologies, such as elevators without an operator in them. Over time, as thousands of human hours are saved by the technology, society embraces the risks as worth the overall reward. Uber’s self-driving cars use Lidar sensors. These highly attuned sensors have been designed to be good at night vision from hundreds of feet away. The Lidar puts objects into a category such as pedestrian, fixed object, animal, etc.
But since this is an emerging technology there are still some concerning glitches to be resolved. Many times autonomous cars have difficulty navigating situations like a four-way stop where humans often use nods or hand-signals to designate whose turn it is to go.
Recently, a self-driving Uber sport-utility vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian outside Phoenix, leading the company to suspend road-testing of its autonomous vehicles there and in other cities. As a precaution, Uber had a safety driver in the vehicle, but video of the incident showed he was distracted by looking off in the distance at the time of the crash. Authorities at the Tempe, AZ police department speculate that the Lidar may have mistaken the pedestrian who was not in a crosswalk, as a different category of moving object such as another car.
In this particular case, the family of the deceased pedestrian decided to settle out of court with Uber for an undisclosed amount. The letter from the senators to the car companies said that under Uber’s terms of service, if the a passenger in one of its self-driving cars died, her family in seeking damages could have been forced to accept binding arbitration rather than go to court. If you have questions or concerns about Intellectual Property or Technology Law, call an intellectual property attorney, like an today.