Tesla has turned to the classic turn signal as a means to solve the question of responsibility when driverless cars are caught in collisions.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company is soon to launch semiautonomous features in its cars -- including the Model S sedan -- which make use of driverless technology.
When passing a car or turning a corner, sources familiar with the matter say drivers trigger the function by hitting the turn signal button instead of allowing a car to complete the maneuver without human intervention. Not only does this signal to the car it can complete the turn, but by manually triggering the move, this indicates the driver has given thought to the maneuver and believes it is safe.
A small tweak with big implications. By passing on control of such maneuvers to the driver, once the move is activated responsibility also shifts from car system to driver -- as pressing the button signals intent.
When responsibility moves, so does liability -- and so if the car is involved in a collision, driver intent and engagement can be proven. This, in turn, can help companies such as Tesla avoid regulatory problems and potential future court cases.
The modification only relates to cars completing these sorts of maneuvers, but small modifications which pass on responsibility could potentially be a way to solve the liability question. For example, automakers could use sensors to force drivers to keep one hand on the wheel to show alertness and engagement -- adhering to current road laws in many states and keeping themselves out of the courtroom.
The publication says the Model S sedan autonomous car-passing feature is in development, but may not show up in the first software updates due over the summer. Tesla has given few details on what drivers can expect, except saying Model S drivers will have access to "cool features that increase both their safety and enjoyment behind the wheel."
This week, Google admitted its self-driving car does not have a completely clean accident record, having been involved in 11 road incidents -- but was quick to point out the collisions were the fault of other drivers. According to the director of the program, Chris Urmson, the accidents were all "minor" and did not result in any injuries.
However, the incidents do highlight a transition we are likely to undergo -- a day when both driverless and standard cars are sharing the same roadspace. Between predictable algorithms and less predictable human drivers, accidents will happen -- and it is up to regulators to work out whether the fault will lie with a driverless car's passenger or computer systems.