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Self-driving cars introduced into senior living community

The Villages, America’s largest retirement community, is breaking new ground on the technology front. It has installed a fleet of self-driving vehicles in the 750-mile, gated community—giving back mobility to elderly residents who no longer drive.

The model seems like an excellent way to test out the concept of driverless vehicles. Similar to a car-sharing service, residents can access a car from the fleet as needed for an affordable price—50 cents per mile. The car arrives at the resident’s door and takes them to a fixed destination within the community. A resident can carry out their errands and maintain a level of self sufficiency that they might have otherwise lost after giving up their personal vehicle.

It also seems like a relatively safe space for test driving the new technology. The community is a contained environment with limited variables. The speed limits are low. There are no children in the streets or young people zipping by.

However, in the event of an accident, the question of liability becomes a bit more complex. On the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 0–5 scale of automation, the autonomous vehicles in use at The Villages rank at level 4—representing the highest level ever admitted on the road. (On public roads, the highest level of automated vehicle currently permitted is a 2.) When the level of automation reaches a 3 or above, the NHTSA considers the car to be operating itself—the driver is no longer in control. What this means from a liability perspective is that if an autonomous car crashes, the car—rather than the driver—is at fault.

With a human-operated car, if a mechanical failure causes a crash, the supplier of the faulty part is held liable. However, with an autonomous car, there are many more complex mechanisms at play. There are multiple, automated software technologies in the vehicle, which are separate, yet interrelated. They communicate with each other to perform properly. In the event of a crash, there is a new layer of difficulty in determining which element of which software is to blame. As autonomous vehicles become more widely used, this factor could create challenges for car accident lawsuits.

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