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California Crash: Don't Blame Tiger

by Roger Lanctot | Apr 12, 2021

The battle over the police handling of the investigation of Tiger Wood’s catastrophic crash in Rancho Palos Verdes on Feb. 23 has begun with finger pointing and coverup claims including the speculation that Woods might have been unconscious at the moment his vehicle left the road. As is often the case in such crashes, assigning blame will likely require the intervention of attorneys and judges. 

What is clear is that Woods was behind the wheel of a 2021 Genesis GV80 equipped with a sophisticated array of safety technology including lane keeping assistance, automatic emergency braking, and semi-autonomous driving functions – none of which did him any good as he was driving at nearly twice the posted speed limit of 45 miles per hour. The presence of those systems, though, does raise the prospect of the car maker, Hyundai, being held responsible in some way...or some day in the future.

This was precisely the speculation proffered by Professor Alain Kornhauser on the latest episode of his SmartDrivingCars podcast during an interview with American University Professor Selika Josiah Talbott. The podcast session was ostensibly to discuss the post-crash protocols for autonomous vehicles, but the Tiger Woods crash was considered in the latter half of the conversation.

What Happens When a Driverless Car Crashes? - https://soundcloud.com/smartdrivingcar

Ockham’s razor would have us conclude, as did the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, that Woods was traveling at excessive speed and lost control of the vehicle. Experts are not surprisingly raising questions regarding this apparently too-swiftly-arrived-at conclusion, which ignores other information relevant to the crash.

The podcast did not take on the post-crash forensics. For Kornhauser, the mere fact that an obviously sophisticated vehicle, or in fact any vehicle, would allow the driver – any driver – to drive in a perilous and unsafe fashion in an area known to be dangerous raises liability questions implicating the auto maker.

Professor Talbott was quick to note that in such cases it is not unusual for attorneys representing the drivers to blame roadway conditions including insufficient signage or traffic calming measures. Such legal maneuvers are indeed quite common, especially when drivers are facing severe charges or in the event of a fatality.

In Tiger Woods’ case, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department appears to be trying to swiftly wrap up the investigation. The crash severely injured Tiger Woods and totaled the car and damaged some property, but the circumstances appear to be self-contained and suitable for a quick resolution.

But Professor Kornhauser’s question remains. What is the liability today or what might it be in the future? Is it okay for a cleverly architected car with an array of safety systems and sensors designed to warn and alert the driver – is it okay for that car to allow the driver to significantly exceed the speed limit and leave the roadway.

Like Professor Kornhauser, I do not believe cars should hit things. A failure to avoid a collision by a car is a product defect. Somehow, when it comes to cars, we tolerate these failures.

When considering the safety equipment portfolio on the 2021 Genesis GV80 it is difficult to escape the glaring reality that the car is actually built to avoid collisions. The standard advanced safety systems on the car include:

  • Highway Driving Assist II semi-autonomous driving mode
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection
  • Lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist

The car is also capable of automated parking and automated lane changing on highways. It’s highly unlikely that Woods was briefed on the safety systems that came with the vehicle – nor is it clear that any of them had been activated – although some would not have been operating on the road and at the speed Woods was driving.

The implication of Professor Kornhauser’s question, though, is that the industry’s work toward automating driving is beginning to shift driving responsibility and therefore liability to the maker of the car. In fact, the Genesis GV80 is equipped with a driver monitor to help ensure the driver is paying attention – at least when operating the Highway Driving Assist function which enables “hands-free” driving on the highway.

Tesla Motors, alone among auto makers, has hatched an entirely new driving experience in coming to terms with these new driving circumstances. A Youtube video posted last year shows how a Tesla operating in Autopilot will slow down to a stop if the driver unlatches the seatbelt, opens a door, or exceeds 90 miles per hour.

Don’t Do This While Driving a Tesla on Autopilot - https://tinyurl.com/4zur57ps

Similarly, a Tesla operating in Full Self-Driving mode will frequently nudge the driver to apply torque to the steering wheel – as will the Genesis GV80 – or to advise the vehicle regarding the status of an upcoming intersection if it is equipped with a traffic light. When approaching signaled intersections a Tesla with Full Self-Driving activated will in-effect use the driver as an additional sensor.

The investigation of the Woods crash is far from over. Questions regarding his mental and physical condition at the time of the crash must be resolved. Was the roadway where the crash occurred unsafe? Was there anything wrong with the vehicle? Time will tell. 

The Woods crash and hundreds of others just like it that occur every day are increasingly raising the question of what we, as consumers, should tolerate or expect from the safety systems built into our vehicles. Cars that crash are defective products. If we lose consciousness at the wheel, shouldn’t the vehicle be able to take control – i.e. slow and stop the vehicle? The Woods crash challenges us to consider whether a vehicle’s failure to do just that is acceptable. Let’s not close this investigation until we have resolved this and other questions.

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