Laws governing autonomous vehicles are being debated around the country, focusing on liability and responsibility for when the technology performs poorly. The issue is complex: When a self-driving vehicle causes damage or harm, who is responsible? Is it the “driver?” Is it the automaker? Or is it the company that developed the software commanding the vehicle?
Unpacking the big question exposes few answers and only generates more questions. Lawmakers across the country are now dealing with the eventual presence of self-driving vehicles in their major cities by asking these questions and making determinations that will impact how autonomous vehicles are introduced, acquired, managed, governed and insured.
At the core of the argument is the issue of the legal standing of an automated machine – a robot – and if human accountability can be legally circumscribed. John Frank Weaver, author of the book Robots Are People, Too, makes a point about absolving humans from the mistakes made by robots. “In some cases, that will require recognizing that the robots are insurable entities like real people or corporations and that a robot’s liability is self-contained.”
So, when an autonomous vehicle built by Google avoids an object in the road and hits another vehicle, is Google responsible? It is, after all, Google’s self-driving algorithms, systems and sensors that are guiding the vehicle and not the driver. Using this logic, are we to sue the machine, the corporation or both?
Are companies willing to take on that level of liability in age of the self-driving vehicle? Commercial liability policies have long paid the price for the damages caused by machines. However, this scenario needs to consider the participation of multiple parties with conflicting interests and responsibilities as well as different degrees of legal resources and governmental influence.
Lawmakers are taking incremental steps toward governing autonomous vehicles, including the changing of motor vehicle codes that define who is in command of a self-driving vehicle at the time the technology is engaged. This is key to establishing liability in a consistent manner, which is what good law requires. But expect the issue to broaden as the debate over whether people, machines or companies can be held responsible for the bad behavior of technology continues.
Source: Georgia lawmakers consider motoring future, driverless cars – Athens Banner-Herald