Robot Driver, Human Fall Guy

If a robot car crashes, who should take the blame? The human, even if they’re not actually driving? The car manufacturer? The software designer?

If a robot car demands a human take over control, when is the machine no longer responsible for driving? When it sounds the alert? When the driver actually takes over? Ten seconds after the driver takes over? Or 20, or 30 seconds? Or never?

Can a robot car get a speeding ticket or a parking violation?  Can a passenger get a DUI, even if the robot is driving? 

If a robot car has a defect, the origin of which is so complex that it can’t be pinpointed, would the manufacturer get away scot-free when it crashes and kills its passengers, because no one can be sure why?

Robot cars may go a long way to preventing many of the more than 30,000 deaths that occur each year on U.S. roads. But they also raise a whole host of questions about the future.

There’s a real danger that business interests will use this uncertainty to push through some form of corporate immunity. Already, proposals have been floated that would leave corporations unaccountable for any future defects, no matter how deadly they turned out to be.

It’s a pattern we’ve seen before. In the past, problems with technological innovations like airplane autopilot systems, industrial robots, or robotic surgical systems, have been blamed on humans, even when those humans were placed in impossibly dangerous situations.

Today, as robot cars begin to actually take to the roads, humans are again taking the fall for problems. A robot Uber runs a red light – Uber blames the human occupant; a Google car hits a bus – Google suggests the bus driver should have stopped; a Tesla crashes into a truck – Tesla implies the driver should have been paying attention; a Cruise Automation Nissan crashes in downtown San Francisco – Cruise claims the driver should have taken over.

Hopefully, robot cars will prevent crashes and save lives. But when something goes wrong – and inevitably something will – human passengers and pedestrians are the ones that are going to be hurt. They should not also be taking the blame.

The American Association for Justice’s new report examining these issues, Driven to Safety: Robot Cars and the Future of Liability, is available here.