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Self-Driving Cars and the Danger of Federal Preemption

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There are many good reasons to be optimistic about the rapid advancements in autonomous vehicle technology.  Self-driving cars have the potential to reduce crashes and save lives by taking human error out of the driving equation.  And it appears as though the transition to self-driving vehicles may occur sooner rather than later.  As we wrote last week, Florida has already green lit Peloton’s plans to beta test its “platooning” technology on public roads.  This technology connects several “partially” autonomous semi-trucks together to create a convoy of big rigs headed up by just one human driver, who in turn has control over the speed and braking of all of the following semi-trucks.

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Autonomous Commercial Trucks Are Currently in Beta Testing: Update for Consumer Advocates & Attorneys

Last week was the 2016 Autonomous Vehicle Symposium in San Francisco where a host of companies attended and gave presentations about their newly developing autonomous vehicle or self-driving technology. One of the companies that presented at the Symposium was a trucking company called Peloton. Peloton makes technology that connects semi-trucks together while driving on the […]

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Tire Season PSA Series: Tire Safety Danger

Every summer, our law firm sees an increase in the number of consumers seriously hurt and killed as a result of tire failures.  There are a few basic reasons for this “summer” trend.  Significantly, the single largest component in modern steel-belted radial tires is natural rubber, which can degrade when exposed to heat, humidity and […]

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NEW PSA SERIES: Your Car May Be Unsafe- How to Protect Yourself & Family

Silent Killers, a new public service announcement (PSA) series designed to inform and educate the public about a spike in recent car safety issues will launch Monday on social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter. The PSAs address topics ranging from defective airbags to exploding tire risks in high heat. Created by ConsumerWatch.com, the web series […]

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URGENT: Takata Recall Update

Federal safety regulators announced more than 300,000 Hondas and Acuras should not be driven until their Takata airbags are replaced.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said new tests show these airbags have a much higher risk of exploding and killing a driver or passenger. These airbags have a 50% chance of exploding when they are deployed in an accident, according to the agency. Other Takata airbags have less than a 1% chance of exploding.

Cars located in humid regions of the country such as Texas, Florida and the Gulf Coast are at particular risk.

The models identified by NHTSA include: 2001-2002 Honda Civic, 2001-2002 Honda Accord, 2002-2003 Acura TL, 2002 Honda CR-V, 2002 Honda Odyssey, 2003 Acura CL, 2003 Honda Pilot.

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WJLA speaks to Rich Newsome and Corey Burdick

Recently, Rich Newsome along with his client Corey Burdick, spent the day with Lisa Fletcher from WJLA. They told Corey’s story and shared the frightening details surrounding the Takata airbag recall. The very same company that designed the faulty airbag system – Takata – is designing and manufacturing its replacement…using the same, key ingredient that […]

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2001-2003 Honda/Acura Takata Airbag PSA

A new public service announcement (PSA) featuring Corey Burdick, one of many victims of defective Takata airbags that have been recalled.

“The federal government just issued an urgent warning to consumers about certain 2001/2002 Honda vehicles with defective airbags,” Newsome can be seen saying in the PSA. “The warning told consumers not even to drive their vehicles until they have taken it into a dealership to make sure that if they have a defective airbag, it has been replaced.”

Takata, whose airbags can be found in one in every five cars on the road in the United States, has come under Congressional scrutiny for intentionally putting forward a product which executives knew was defective. U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida has stated that the current Takata airbag recall may reach upwards to 250 million vehicles worldwide.

In the educational PSA, a disfigured Burdick speaks into the camera stating, “I lost my eye because of a defective airbag…take your car in today so that this doesn’t happen to you.”

Corey Burdick’s life was forever changed on May 29, 2014 when he was involved in a minor traffic incident while driving to work in Lake County, Florida. During the minor incident, the Takata airbag in his 2001 Honda Civic ejected sharp metal shrapnel into his right eye, leaving him disfigured and permanently blind in that eye.

Burdick later found out that his Civic had been previously recalled multiple times for the dangerous airbag defect. Unfortunately, Burdick never received notice of the recall. As a result, Burdick, his wife, and their two young children are now forced to live with permanent and needless injuries he suffered as a result of the shrapnel defect.

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Self-Driving Vehicles and Federal Preemption

Yesterday, Tesla confirmed that the government is actively investigating the first reported fatality involving the company’s “auto-pilot” technology.  The fatal crash occurred on May 6 in Williston, Florida, claiming the life of former Navy SEAL Joshua Brown.  According to Tesla’s public statement about the crash, the car’s autopilot feature failed to notice the white side of a tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky.  As a result, the software failed to apply the brakes, and the car’s windshield struck the bottom of the trailer.

As we have previously written, “autonomous” or “self-driving” automotive technology has the capability to save lives, if implemented correctly.  A self-driving vehicle should theoretically perform better than a human driver if it operates according to a computer code that properly accounts for the surrounding environment and changes in traffic conditions.  However, when technology reaches the market before it is ready, software bugs and design flaws may go unnoticed until it is too late.  We’ve all had a computer crash unexpectedly.  Now imagine if that computer was supposed to be making the call as to when to apply the brakes during rush hour.

Well-developed negligence and strict products liability law already provide the best solution for those instances where self-driving technology fails and results in injury or death.  Under a negligence or strict liability theory, the manufacturer would be held accountable if a design defect caused or contributed to the crash.  The determination as to whether the software had a defect would, in turn, be made in the same manner that these kinds of determinations have always been made—by a civil jury.

Time and time again, the civil jury system has proven the best way to get to the truth in product defect cases.  Each and every automotive crash is unique, and the determination as to whether a product had a defect that played into a crash must necessarily be made only after carefully reviewing the circumstances of that particular crash.  The jury system allows for this type of case-by-case analysis to be conducted in open court, with each party having a fair opportunity to present their claims and defenses.

Unfortunately, auto manufacturers are now actively lobbying federal lawmakers to strip citizens of their rights to a jury trial should they find themselves in the same predicament as the Brown family.  Their weapon of choice in this regard is federal preemption.  Specifically, they are seeking what could be an often-times insurmountable defense whereby regulations implemented by Washington bureaucrats would forever trump the right of any individual citizen involved in a self-driving vehicle crash from seeking relief in the courts.

Earlier this year, the US Department of Transportation announced that it was working on guidance with respect to self-driving vehicle technology.  Since then, both the DOT and the Senate have held hearings in Washington to address the issue.  The DOT guidance is supposed to be released sometime this month.

Stay tuned.  We will continue to monitor and provide updates on the key legal and regulatory battles with respect to self-driving vehicles as they unfold.

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