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Automated vehicles alter rules of the road: Guest view

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A rendering from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation shows the entrance of a proposed testing facility for autonomous vehicles. The facility, whose site has yet to be selected, is slated to open in 2020.
A rendering from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation shows the entrance of a proposed testing facility for autonomous vehicles. The facility, whose site has yet to be selected, is slated to open in 2020. - (Photo / )

On March 18, Elaine Herzberg was struck and killed by a self-driving Uber vehicle, which had a driver onboard. A week later, Walter Huang died after his Tesla, operating on autopilot, crashed into a concrete barrier. Who was at fault: the manufacturers of the vehicles or the drivers?

Tesla says it was Huang’s fault, claiming that he was aware of a problem with the autopilot system but continued to use it. Uber blames the vehicle’s software, though the driver in the car could have taken control.

Who will be liable should an accident or other problem with an automated vehicle occur remains a significant issue. The question is especially important to auto manufacturers and dealers. The knee-jerk reaction would be to blame the manufacturer for a defect in its self-driving vehicle. But in the Uber and Tesla crashes, a human was present who might have altered the outcome.

Privacy concerns

An automated vehicle’s onboard computer keeps records of its operation – which raises yet-to-be resolved privacy concerns.

After a crash, insurance carriers want data from the vehicles involved to help assess who is liable. But vehicle owners and drivers might not want to release that information, and automakers fear that providing details about their software could allow their intellectual property to fall into the hands of competitors.

Threat of hacking

Theresa Kane, director of insurance services at Boyer & Ritter
Theresa Kane, director of insurance services at Boyer & Ritter - ()

The government, manufacturers and consumers should be concerned about the possibility of hackers taking over automated-vehicle systems. In a test, two cybersecurity experts were able to crack a Jeep’s system and cause the vehicle to drive into a ditch, according to a 2016 report by Trucks.com.

Automated vehicles are a computer on wheels powered by an engine, and computers are vulnerable to hacking. Peloton, the exercise-cycle maker, has developed software to allow the trucking industry to platoon its vehicles similar to the way that bicyclists riding in a group can work together to conserve energy. Plagued by a driver shortage, the trucking industry is turning to automated vehicles to transport goods.

A trucking platoon would consist of a captain/pilot vehicle with a driver onboard. Two other trucks or tractor-trailers would follow that vehicle. Because the hacking of the lead vehicle could result in a major theft of goods as well as mayhem on the highways and significant loss of life, Peloton’s system has been independently audited, its communications are encrypted and the communications among platooned trucks are authenticated.

But is that enough?

Pennsylvania precautions

State House Bill 1958, introduced in December 2017, would allow the platooning of highly automated vehicles in work zones, with the lead vehicle, driven by a human, in communication with a second vehicle to coordinate movement. The vehicles would help maintain traffic flow in an attempt to prevent the hundreds of deaths suffered each year by motorists and highway workers in work zones.

But before the use of automated vehicles can shift into high gear, maps must be updated, and roadways need to have signage, sensors and special paint so that these high-tech vehicles can navigate safely.

While most experts believe it will be at least 10 years before technology and price make such automated vehicles available to the average consumer, that day is coming. In the meantime, if you glance at the truck traveling next to you and you don’t see a driver, take extra care to get to your destination safely.

Theresa Kane is director of insurance services at accounting firm Boyer & Ritter, which has offices in Camp Hill, Carlisle, Chambersburg and State College. She is a certified insurance counselor who provides unbiased insurance review services. She can be reached at 717-761-7210 or tkane@cpabr.com.

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