Seventy-five years from now, when the streets are filled with driverless cars that never speed, how will governments make up for lost traffic ticket revenue?
In a world without car crashes, what will happen to auto body shops?
And will anyone ride the trains anymore if a comfortable, convenient, affordable rideshare service is just a phone click away?
Adam Blank is thinking through those questions over the next few months as he helps usher in the rapidly approaching era of the driverless car to the Nutmeg State.
Blank, an attorney, is one of 11 Connecticut residents appointed to a state task force to investigate the future of driverless cars in Connecticut. He came on WNHH’s “The Legal Eagle” program to talk about the mission of the task force, as well as about the technological innovation’s political, economic, and environmental consequences.
The task force, which includes Commissioner of Motor Vehicles Michael Bzdyra, Commissioner of Transportation James Redeker, and Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) Benjamin Barnes, will also make recommendations on how to establish driverless car pilot programs in four Connecticut cities: New Haven, Hartford, Waterbury, and Stamford.
The state legislature created the task force in June 2017, yet the group has yet to meet. Blank said that the first meetings were delayed because of the state budget crisis last fall. He said he expects that the task force will meet soon. He said that the task force’s recommendations should be ready by the fall.
Driverless cars, also known as “autonomous cars” or “robot cars,” are automobiles that essentially drive themselves.
Blank said that driverless cars are ranked from zero to four based on the level of automation.
Level 0, he said, applies to cars that are not automated, and are controlled entirely by a human driver.
Levels 1 and 2 apply to cars with some automated features, such as adaptive cruise control, automatic breaking assists, blind spot warnings and lane departure warnings. These cars still primarily rely on a human driver.
Levels 3 and 4, he said, apply to cars that drive themselves entirely. They don’t need steering wheels or brake pedals. They use a combination of GPS, lidar (or light detection and ranging), wi-fi, infrared cameras and regular cameras to navigate their surroundings without the help of a human driver.
But Blank, a personal injury lawyer who spent a decade on Norwalk’s zoning commission, said that his interest in driverless cars extends beyond the technological marvel of it all and more towards their utopian promise, their political and economic ramifications, and the profound social and ethical questions that they raise.
“This is an important moment for the [car] industry and for the public,” Blank said. “The promise of these vehicles is that they’re going to very, very substantially reduce motor vehicle crashes and fatalities.”
One-third of the country’s motor vehicle-related fatalities are related to alcohol. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for 15-to-29 year-olds in this country.
He said that one of the key hopes for driverless cars is that, without the risk posed by a distracted or impaired or drowsy driver, the number of automobile-related injuries and fatalities will drop significantly.
But, he said, there will still be accidents and malfunctioning technology, particularly as society transitions from primarily non-automated to primarily automated vehicles on the road.
He noted the death of a woman in Tempe, Arizona, who was struck and killed by a self-driving Uber car earlier this month as one of the industry’s first examples of the dangers inherent to this transitional moment.
Whom To Sue?
The steering wheel-less inside of a driverless car.
As a personal injury lawyer, Blank said, he is interested in helping Connecticut figure out how the state’s legal system can and should work to make sure that there is a fair and efficient process for resolving driverless car accidents.
He said that one way that the law could handle such issues is by assuming that the owner of the vehicle, whether that owner is an individual or a rideshare service like Uber, is always responsible for the vehicle’s actions. If a lawsuit is filed, it would be filed against the vehicle’s owner.
However, he said, he would like to see manufacturers of automated cars provide insurance at a high amount that would cover the vehicle and the owner. When a claim is made against the owner, he said, the auto insurance would come from the manufacturer, not some individual auto policy.
He also said that the law should determine responsibility for accidents involving automated cars by assessing which party violated the rules of the road.
But the questions posed by a future of driverless cars are not just legal ones, he said.
Without the need for a driver, car interiors will come to resemble offices or living rooms, with a higher focus on comfort and “infotainment,” Blank said. Automated cars will be equipped with a suite of functional and recreational technologies that will collect reams of customer data for car manufacturers to mine.
“What happens to the data they compile about where you’re going, or what you’re doing?” he asked. “Will it be made anonymous?”
He also said that any technology, no matter how secure, is vulnerable to hackers, and so driverless car advocates need to be wary about privacy and safety concerns that accompany the technology.
“Do we wake up one morning where every GM car has been hacked, and they’ve all been hacked so that they crash at 90 miles per hour?” he asked. “Can they hack and kidnap you?”
He also asked what the long-term impact would be on government revenue.
He said that the computers that drive automated cars will be programmed not to speed, and therefore governments will no longer have access to the estimated $3 to $7 billion in annual speeding ticket revenue.
One Word: Plastics
In a future with no accidents, Blank said that driverless cars would be made of light-weight plastic, not heavy steel, which would make the cars much more fuel efficient but would also disrupt the current steel industry.
He said that the trucking industry is particularly keen on driverless cars, as they would eliminate the need to employ 3 to 4 million truck drivers, and would result in the faster or more efficient transportation of goods throughout the country. But what about those drivers’ jobs? And what about truck driver license revenue collected by the state?
Blank said that semi-automated cars will become more and more popular over the next ten years, but that the widespread adoption of fully automated cars is still a while away.
In the meantime, he said, he and his colleagues on the task force will work to develop recommended guidelines for when, if things go wrong, there’s a fair system in place to protect drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, and to penalize those who violate the rules of the road.
Click on the audio below for the full interview.