As Computers Take Over Transportation, Liability Threatens

By Cory Bilton.

Foggy Bottom Metro Sign

Transportation has incorporated new technologies for centuries now. But the newest technologies are increasingly removing humans from the equation, at least as far as driving or controlling vehicles. Last month I wrote about some of the legal challenges facing autonomous vehicles when they are released to the public. This week, I ran across two other instances where legal liability greatly limited computer controlled technology in our cars and public transportation. These examples illustrate not only some of the challenges that I think autonomous vehicles will face, but also present a cautionary tale that new technology does not necessarily perform better than a human would.

Technology Blocking Texting While Driving Hits a Legal Pothole

Almost everyone agrees that texting while driving is dangerous. While even talking may distract a driver’s attention, text messaging is a much greater distraction.  Reading and writing text messages requires far too much focus and dexterity to do while also safely driving a vehicle. But humans are only human; sometimes we can’t stop ourselves from sending a few texts from behind the wheel. Wouldn’t it be great if someone could come up with a technology to interrupt text messages and block them from going through while the receiver is driving a vehicle? According to a recent NY Times article, Scott Tibbitts created a device that would keep drivers from sending or receiving text messages. At first glance, technology seems like the perfect solution to the problem.

But the project hit a snag. The restriction could only be imposed if the driver volunteered.  The only way to apply the text-message restriction across a whole network would require the cooperation of a telecommunications company. In other words, without the help of a company like Sprint, the only way the technology could restrict a driver from texting is if the driver turned the technology on (which means, the driver could easily turn it back off). Certainly this seems like the type of safety feature a telecom company could earn some money implementing. But by stepping in and restricting the flow of text messages, is the telecom company opening itself up to legal liability? In this case it appears Sprint worried that it might not be able to prevent mishaps where the technology fails and the driver is somehow able to send and receive texts (which may lead to an accident). Would the telecom company be at fault in this situation? This fear seems to have stalled the technology for the time being.

Washington DC Metro to Put Computers Back in the Drivers Seat

The Washington Post recently wrote that Metro will start returning to computer-driven trains over the next three years. The reason this is news at all is that WMATA stopped using the computer-driven trains because the system was responsible for the 2009 Metro Red Line train crash. In the aftermath of the crash, not only were humans faulted for various safety failures, but the technology itself was blamed for failing to detect that the trains existed. For the last five years, Metro trains have been operated by human drivers while $18 million worth of improvements have been made to fix the problem (and another $33 million are scheduled to be spent). WMATA’s plan is to phase the computer-driven trains back into the system over the next 3 years. Although the failure of the technology only produced one collision, it is one collision that has cost significant human life and health and many dollars to fix.

Computer Automation in Transportation: Proceed with Caution

Both of these technologies intend to remove some amount of human discretion from operating a moving vehicle. It is easy to become wide-eyed about the coolness that new technologies can bring. But particularly with regard to promises of increased safety that accompany these new technologies, I think we should take a skeptic’s view. For some technologies, the risk of failure imposes little or no potential loss of human life or limb. But technologies that drive our vehicles, operate an eight-car train, or promise to prevent us from distraction, the risk of failure can mean serious human suffering. As these two examples show, the risks that existed before the technology are not really eliminated by it, but just shifted somewhere else or onto another person.

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