When Nevada made driverless cars legal in the state last year, we armchair futurists sat up a little straighter. All of a sudden a number of meandering philosophical questions about how our society would have to change to embrace such technology seemed quite a bit more urgent. This question seemed especially pressing: Driverless cars are safer than those piloted by humans, but how would we feel about deaths caused by machines rather than people?
In our post on the topic we considered the ethics of the situation, but we think this recent short piece from Popular Science nails the liability angle on the issue: the real question, as far as car manufacturers are concerned, is not whether the cars are fundamentally safer, but who will should take legal responsibility for the accidents:
When a company sells a car that truly drives itself, the responsibility will fall on its maker. “It’s accepted in our world that there will be a shift,” says Bryant Walker Smith, a legal fellow at Stanford University’s law school and engineering school who studies autonomous-vehicle law. “If there’s not a driver, there can’t be driver negligence. The result is a greater share of liability moving to manufacturers.”
The liability issues will make the adoption of the technology difficult, perhaps even impossible. In the 1970s, auto manufacturers hesitated over implementing airbags because of the threat of lawsuits in cases where someone might be injured in spite of the new technology. Over the years, airbags have been endlessly refined. They now account for a variety of passenger sizes and weights and come with detailed warnings about their dangers and limitations. Taking responsibility for every aspect of a moving vehicle, however—from what it sees to what it does—is far more complicated. It could be too much liability for any company to take on.
But if the benefit to public health is great enough, the federal government can sometimes get involved to grease the skids. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the case of driverless cars.
Read more at Popular Science.