Autonomous cars are becoming a reality, and soon cars will able to operate without drivers on our streets, motorways, and even our racetracks. The technology itself is becoming more and more robust, being applied to other vehicles, with talk of even planes being automated.
But this raises a fundamental question about the laws involved with autonomous vehicles: who is to blame in the event of an accident? The global annual death toll in auto accidents is over a million people, with over 90% of accidents being down to human error. Driverless technology is predicted to add around $7 trillion to the economy, so it’s less a question of if we’ll have fully autonomous cars, it’s more a matter of when.
Tesla, one of the leading manufacturers of autonomous vehicles, have already been involved in crashes, one during an initial autopilot test. The car was in autopilot mode, and crashed into a truck that was crossing into its lane. The initial investigation conducted by the Highway Patrol placed the guilt solely with the truck driver. However, once it had been established that the car was in autopilot mode a second investigation was launched by the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration. This concluded that the driver of the car was also partly at fault, as had he been paying attention, he would have been able to avoid the truck.
This raises a great many ethical and legal questions about the nature of culpability when driving. Is it the driver of the car, relying too heavily on the autonomous feature? Depending on the accident, it could simply be the other driver, but there is a third option: the autonomous car itself could be at fault. In that case, is it the company who is accountable? The designer of the software? The engineer who built the car? There are many levels of blame, and each new case poses new problems.
Autonomous technology will require the complete rewriting of the laws of the road, but more than that, it will require a rethinking of the forces at play during traffic collisions and their ramifications. This will be handled in of course a legal framework, but these issues are intrinsically more political than they may first appear.
At present, the judicial system here in the UK relies upon two basic principles to define an act as ‘criminal’. Firstly, there must be an act or application of force. Second, there must be an intention to carry out that act. The problem with assigning blame in the event of an accident is the context, it’s almost impossible to establish precedents for all circumstances.
On one hand, when autonomous technology is perfected, it could mean an end to many types of motoring offences, including speeding and drink driving. On the other hand, this uncertainty about the nature of accountability in the event of a crash can lead to a breakdown in the legal system.
First of all, changing any driving laws would require a mass overhaul of both legislation and infrastructure. For example, all our roads have been designed and implemented for human vision. In some instances, road lines and markers have been too faded for car’s sensor systems to tell where it should be driving.
Second, we may have to reassess which laws even apply to these types of accidents. Defective autonomous car cases have more in common with product liability laws than vehicular negligence. This means cases may be immediately more complicated than standard crashes are today.
The autonomous systems behind Tesla’s autonomous cars are upgraded by a process called ‘fleet learning’, where the data from all the cars and their journeys is uploaded into one central algorithm. In theory, given enough time, autonomous vehicles will learn how to drive flawlessly in any situation, and will saves lives, give disabled people vastly superior access to transport, and improve the quality of life for millions of commuters.
As the technology becomes smarter, we should see fewer and fewer crashes. However until we reach that point, we’re left with arguably quite dangerous vehicles with a population that is all too ready to abdicate responsibility or agency over the vehicles they’re supposed to be driving.
Until we reach a standardised level of technology and safety, with correlating laws, autonomous vehicles won’t be a viable widespread replacement to our more traditional human-operated cars. And that is almost certainly a good thing.
Learn more about how safe driverless cars are, or read about how technology is changing the automotive industry.