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Google's self-driving car in Kirkland, Wash. (Photo via Google.)
Google’s self-driving car in Kirkland, Wash. (Photo via Google.)

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A self-driving car crashes. Who is legally liable for the damage? The owner? The people in the car? The manufacturer? Writers of the software? The state government for allowing the vehicle onto the road? The feds for the same reason?

This and many other unanswered questions popped up Wednesday as the Washington state House technology and transportation committees were briefed on issues related to automated vehicles. For the past few years, some legislators have wondered how Washington state will regulate automated vehicles when they hit the streets and highways.

Reps. Jeff Morris, left and Zack Hudgins, right. (John Stang Photo)
Reps. Jeff Morris, left and Zack Hudgins, right, at the hearing on automated vehicles. (John Stang Photo)

“This is a new frontier in many ways. We should be asking questions before we develop policy,” said Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila and chairman of the House General Government & Information Technology Committee.

“I see a hundred or more consequences for human safety,” said Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton.

The appropriate committee chairpersons will brief House leaders on feedback from this and an earlier briefing to help those leaders coordinate work on automated vehicles whenever actual bills surface. Those chairpersons are Hudgins; Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee; and Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon and chairman of the House Technology & Economic Development Committee. At this time, no specific bills are in the works.

SAE International — which sets global standards and definitions on transportation — has designated five levels of automated vehicles.

  • Level zero is an ordinary car with a driver.
  • Level 1 covers features such as cruise control and parking help.
  • Level 2 includes some steering, acceleration and de-acceleration help, which is as far as commercial automated technology has reached so far.
  • Level 3 will have the vehicle doing most of the driving while having a human in the driver’s seat to help in certain situations. This level is expected to be ready for government testing in 2018, said Jennifer Harris, a staff member for the transportation committee.
  • Level 4 will have the vehicle drive itself without asking the human in the driver’s seat to intervene, but the person will be there to take over. This level is expected to be ready for government testing in 2021.
  • Level 5 has no one in the driver’s seat. No target date has to set for perfecting this level.

California and Michigan lead the nation in developing state regulations for testing and approving automated vehicles, including licensing issues, said Brian Ursino, the Seattle-based director for law enforcement of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which is a professional group of state and provincial vehicle officials.

Brian Ursino
Brian Ursino of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. (John Stang Photo)

“We’re behind (other states). But that’s not such a bad thing,” Ursino said, contending that Washington can learn from California and Michigan being pathfinders on this issue. Most states are similar to Washington in beginning to address these matters. Meanwhile, Ursino’s association is preparing guidelines for dealing with highly automated vehicles that are expected to be released in a decade.

The U.S. Department of Transportation released its guidance for states on this subject in September. No federal standards currently exist for regulating and testing highly automated vehicles.

Legislators, Ursino and Max Sevareid, regional program manager for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, raised these unanswered questions on Wednesday:

  • How will liability insurance be regulated?
  • Would an owner be legally responsible for upgrading a vehicle’s software?
  • What responsibilities would passengers shoulder in an automated vehicles?
  • What are the test standards for an automated vehicle to become street legal in a state?
  • Are there driver’s license issues. If only children, mentally impaired adults or human trafficking victims are in an automated vehicles, what are the legal issues?
  • In the likelihood that manufacturers will installed boxes to transmit sensor information to them for study purposes, what are the privacy issues?
  • Will “black boxes” as in airliners be required for driverless cars? Are local prosecutors, the state or the feds responsible for monitoring and pursuing manufacturing and software problems?

“We will be monitoring (manufacturers) to see if there are issues to set up a recall,” Sevareid said.

Max Savareid
Max Sevareid, regional program manager for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (John Stang Photo)

Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, wondered about the social and economic impacts on taxi drivers, truckers and other drivers losing their jobs to automated vehicles. “Have we looked at the impact of a loss of family-wage jobs?” DeBolt said.

Bernard Soriano of the California Department of Motor Vehicles briefed the committees by Skype. Under California regulations, each of the 19 automated vehicles manufacturers testing in that state must be able to handle $5 million for an unfavorable settlement in liability litigation. So far, 130 automated vehicles being tested in California have been approved for testing. California specifically does not allow automated technology on commercial vehicles and motorcycles.

Also, each manufacturer must submit an annual report to the state on all accidents and on times when the technology improperly disengaged.

So far, there have been 23 automated car accidents in California, with 20 involving Google technology. Early this year, Google began testing a self-driving car prototype out of its office in Kirkland.

Most California accidents were minor and at slow speeds, Soriano said. No injuries were reported The worst occurred when an automated car misjudged traffic flows and speeds as it merged into traffic — and hit the side of a bus. No one was injured in that accident.

Nationally since May, two cars with autonomous features — a 2015 Tesla Model S and a 2016 Tesla Model X — crashed while in autopilot mode with people in the drivers’ seats. On May 7, a 40-year-old Ohio man was killed when his Tesla S on autopilot ran into a semi tractor-trailer rig crossing the road in Florida, continuing to drive under the trailer and beyond. The man was the only person in that car.

The second crash took place on July 1 after a Michigan man put his Tesla X on autopilot on a Pennsylvania highway. The car hit a right guardrail, and then barreled across the road to hit a concrete median and flipped. The Michigan man and his passenger escaped serious injury. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating both crashes, according to the New York Times.

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