With Pittsburgh offering itself as a quote-unquote “laboratory” for self-driving vehicles, Pennsylvanians should be prepared to see more and more driverless cars gliding down the street. Seemingly overnight, automated transportation seems to be upon us.

Yet, self-driving cars are a worrying development for many people. After an autonomous Uber malfunctioned and took the life of a Tempe woman earlier this year, some have begun to tap the brakes on automated vehicles. Immediately following the accident, Uber went so far as to completely pull its entire autonomous vehicle staff out of Arizona. Uber isn’t the only company, though, to experience such problems. Tesla, Google, and Lexus each have seen their vehicles get into unexplained crashes. And now even Pittsburgh mayor Peduto has changed his tune about allowing Uber’s automated cars to have free reign on his city’s streets. Little by little, it’s becoming clear that self-driving vehicles may not be completely ready for primetime.

Understanding Automated Transportation: How Smart is Your Self-Driving Car?

Most people are unaware that there are different levels of self-driving cars. Indeed, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) defines self-driving cars according to 6 increasing levels of autonomy. Below is a list of the 6 different levels set by the SAE:

  • Level 0: A normal car.
  • Level 1: The “hands on” system, where the car controls the speed and the driver steers. Cruise control is an example of this level.
  • Level 2: The “hands off” system. The car takes full control of speed, stopping, and steering. The driver must remain alert, however, while using this system. “Hands off” isn’t actually true with this system since many Level 2 vehicles require the driver’s hands to be on the steering wheel at all times.
  • Level 3: The “eyes off” system. A driver may divert their attention from the road using this system, say to watch a movie or even read a book. The vehicle may notify the driver to remain alert during certain conditions, such as inclement weather.
  • Level 4: The “mind off” system. No driver attention is required at this level. A driver may even fall asleep, if they so choose.
  • Level 5: The no-steering-wheel system. No driver intervention at all. Basically, a robotic taxi.

To date, we are just now seeing Level 4 self-driving vehicles being tested in pilot programs. Manufacturers plan on introducing such vehicles into regular traffic as early as 2019. Level 5 cars, however, are estimated to still be nearly a decade away.

The Ethics of Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving vehicles pose a number of ethical problems for public health and for society, as a whole. Liability issues are one particularly thorny issue that is currently being addressed. If a self-driving vehicle is involved in a crash then who is responsible? Is the car owner liable? The car manufacturer? Or should the company that programmed the autonomous system accept some responsibility for the crash? The answers to these questions largely depend on what state in which the accident occurs.

A more serious ethical issue involving self-driving cars is about just whom the vehicle should save. The classic example is of a child suddenly jumping in front of a self-driving vehicle. With no time to brake, what does the vehicle do? Swerve left into oncoming traffic, potentially causing a severe wreck and injuring even more people? Swerve onto the sidewalk and possibly hit pedestrians? Or does the vehicle keep driving straight and risk hitting the child?

There are no good answers to these questions. But scenarios such as these need to be addressed, and national governments and car manufacturers are only now beginning to look for possible solutions. There’s no denying that fully automated transportation will soon be a reality. But only time will tell if we’re prepared for them or not.


Located in the heart of downtown Seattle, the Advocates Law at Driggs, Bills and Day is a premier personal injury law firm dedicated to helping clients throughout all of Washington State. Since 2012, The Advocates has assisted personal injury victims recover just legal compensation for their personal injuries. Anthony Johnson is a Content Manager with the firm.