What’s down the road for driverless cars?

For car enthusiasts, the 2014 Canadian International Auto Show to be held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in early February is the can’t-be-missed occasion to get a glimpse of exciting developments in the automotive industry. In our electronic age, we can expect manufacturers to showcase the technological capabilities of their newest vehicles and how their latest models can help commuters stay “connected.”

Accenture, an international consulting company, recently conducted a global survey spanning 12 countries to find out what consumers expect from their vehicles. Not surprisingly, the study revealed that vehicle features such as web services, device connectivity, a user-friendly interface and “infotainment” services ranked high on the list of consumer priorities. The ability to surf the Internet via in-dash monitors, dictate e-mails and stream music and video were also important functions for modern-day drivers. Further, the study found that when purchasing a vehicle, more consumers valued these “techno-features” over the vehicle’s driveability and performance capabilities.

These vehicles cater to the technological demands of today’s drivers and increase sales for manufacturers—but do they create inherent risks that distract drivers and make our roads more hazardous?

Traffic fatality statistics reported by the Toronto Police Service in 2013 reached a five-year high, with over 55 traffic fatalities; a significant increased compared to the 44 reported in 2012.

This reflects the growing concern about distracted driving on our roadways and Ontario law has responded to deter some behaviours. It is now prohibited to use a hand-held device while driving, and there has recently been a call for stricter penalties which may include demerit points.

The Ontario Provincial Police cite that distracted driving is a causal factor in 30 to 50 percent of traffic collisions in Ontario. Additional statistics on the dangers of distracted driving are available here.

With this in mind, some manufacturers propose that the technology of the future will make roads safer by eliminating the need for an attentive driver altogether. A fully autonomous vehicle,, which uses artificial intelligence, sensors, and global positioning, is capable of driving itself without human input. These vehicles are currently being tested in Europe, Japan, China and the United States. In Ontario, the Ministry of Transportation is proposing a five-year pilot project to safety test autonomous vehicles before they become available for public use. For the purposes of the pilot, drivers will be restricted to those approved by the Ministry (mainly employees of the manufacturers and software developers) and the vehicle must display signs to show that it is an autonomous vehicle.

From a safety standpoint, an autonomous vehicle is also required to be equipped with the following:

(i) a mechanism to quickly disengage the autonomous technology, so that the driver can take over manually at any time;
(ii) an indicator that shows when the vehicle is in its autonomous mode;
(iii) a system to alert the drive if the autonomous technology fails, or unexpectedly turns off; and
(iv) a mechanism to capture and store any data about the prior operation of the vehicle from at least 30 seconds before any collision.

Manufacturers predict that fully autonomous vehicles will be widely available to the public between 2020 and 2025. You can learn more about the Ministry’s autonomous vehicle pilot project here.

How will advancements in automotive technology change the landscape of motor vehicle negligence claims and personal injury law in the future? Will manufacturers and developers be exposed to liability that results from drivers being distracted by in-car technology? Will they be liable for collisions resulting from system or software failures in automated vehicles? If fully automated vehicles do become the norm, will driver negligence become obsolete?

OTLA is interested in your thoughts on this topic and any further insight from its members. Please feel free to leave your comments below. (Note that all comments are moderated. See our commenting guidelines on the right-hand side of this page.)

Contributed by Michael Giordano, Vice-Chair of OTLA’s New Lawyers Division and a lawyer practicing at Sal Guzzo, LL.B., Professional Corp. in Mississauga, Ont.

Michael Giordano
Written by

Michael Giordano is a founding partner of Avanessy Giordano LLP. Prior to establishing his own practice, he was a partner of a prominent Mississauga personal injury firm.

He completed his law degree at the University of Ottawa. Prior to law school, Michael studied English and Law & Society at York University.

Michael is an active member of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association and is the current Vice-Chair of the New Lawyers Division. He is a regular contributor to the OTLA blog and has also written for The Litigator.

  • In the future, if you put your six year old in a driverless car by himself and send him on a 5 hour drive to his mom’s at the end of the weekend is that a form of child abuse? I’m just wondering because we all know that it will happen.

    • Thanks for your comment. The introduction of autonomous vehicles will have many and far-reaching impacts. OTLA hopes that legislators and insurance regulators will consider all angles as technology moves further and further in this direction.