Yesterday I attended the conference on the legal implications of robocars put on by Santa Clara University Law Review. It was a well done conference, with some real content from a varied group of regulators and legal scholars, a sign of how real the robocar world has become.
After a technology introduction where Sven Bieker of Stanford outlined the challenges he saw which put fully autonomous robocars 2 decades away, the first session was on civil liability. The short message was that based on a number of related cases from the past, it will be hard for manufacturers to avoid liability for any safety problems with their robocars, even when the systems were built to provide the highest statistical safety result if it traded off one type of safety for another.
In general when robocars come up as a subject of discussion in web threads, I frequently see “Who will be liable in a crash” as the first question. I think it’s a largely unimportant question for two reasons. First of all, when the technology is new, there is no question that any lawsuit over any incident involving the cars will include the vendor as the defendant, in many cases with justifiable reasons, but even if there is no easily seen reason why. So potential vendors can’t expect to not plan for liablity.
But most of all, the reality is that in the end, the cost of accidents is borne by car buyers. Normally, they do it by buying insurance. But if the accidents are deemed the fault of the vehicle maker, this cost goes into the price of the car, and is paid for by the vehicle maker’s insurance or self-insurance. It’s just a question of figuring out how the vehicle buyer will pay, and the market should be capable of that (though see below.)
No, the big question in my mind is whether the liabilty assigned in any lawsuit will be significantly greater than it is in ordinary collisions where human error is at fault, because of punitive damages. The cost of collisions is well established and understood, and there is a large industry to manage it, and if robocars are, as planned, safer, then that cost goes down, and that means savings for the car buyer and for society — a big win for all. However, if the cost per collision is much higher even though the number of collisions drops, this can impede the ability of a robocar industry to innovate or even to exist and save those injuries.
Unfortunately, some liability history points to the latter scenario, though it is possible for statutes to modify this.
All cars must have insurance today, and it is normally bought by the car owner/driver, and covers almost all accidents. If a safe robocar is delivered, the lower rate of accidents should mean cheaper insurance. Alas, in California, one of the world’s largest insurance markets and home to robocar labs at Google, Stanford/VW and others, it’s not so simple. California’s Proposition 103 demanded that any insurance policy’s price must be based on weighted factors, and the top 3 weighted factors must be, in order, driving record, number of miles driven and number of years of experience. Other factors like the type of car you have — ie. if you have a robocar — must be weighted lower. So this law makes it very hard to give very cheap insurance for a robocar, and makes it close to impossible to do it for somebody who is getting the robocar precisely because they are a bad driver and have found themselves facing expensive insurance if they keep driving.
Because Prop 103 is a ballot proposition, it can’t easily be superseded by the legislature. It takes a 2/3 vote and a court agreeing the change matches the intent of the original ballot proposition. One would hope the courts would agree that cheaper insurance to encourage safer cars would match the voter intent, but this is a challenge.
Kevin Vincent and Steve Wood from NHTSA, which writes the federal motor vehicle safety standards and does the crash tests, among other things, spoke and gave a fairly robocar-positive message. They are working to assure the vehicles operate safely on the roads, but do appear to be fully aware of how they are a new technology under new rules, and they don’t want to impede adoption by overregulating. They are working out plans to test vehicles in simulation, on test tracks and on the road to rate for safety and seem to have a generally forward-thinking plan.
Local and criminal laws
The session on criminal laws centered more on the traffic code (which isn’t really criminal law) and the fact it varies a lot from state to state. Indeed, any robocar that wants to operate in multiple states will have to deal with this, though fortunately there is a federal standard on traffic controls (signs and lights) to rely on. Some global standards are a concern — the Geneva convention on traffic laws requires every car has a driver who is in control of the vehicle. However, I think that governments will be able to quickly see — if they want to — that these are laws in need of updating. Some precedent in drunk driving can create problems — people have been convicted of DUI for being in their car, drunk, with the keys in their pocket, because they had clear intent to drive drunk. However, one would hope the posession of a robocar (of the sort that does not need human manual driving) would express an entirely different intent to the law. While the car might have an emergency manual override, as is likely for other reasons, one would hope it is the drunk’s responsiblity if they use it, not the car’s responsiblity for having it there.
The session on privacy left me a little wanting. There was no addressing the issue that cars will have cameras on them, recording the whole world once they get frequent enough. Most of the concern was on the logs of all your movements, which is indeed a concern — and already one with cell phones.
ITS and Spectrum
There were sessions on ITS and DSRC (the spectrum allocated for communications from vehicles to other vehicles and to local infrastructure points.) I’ve written on this topic before, and while I believe that of course robocars will make use of any such signals, they can’t be built to depend on them, and will in fact only encounter them occasionally for the next decade at least. As such, robocar development proceeds without much connection to the connected vehicle world, which I am sure bemuses those in the connected vehicle world.