How Will the Law Treat Injuries Caused by Autonomous Vehicles?
A version of this article appeared in S&P Global Market Intelligence in April 2018.
Recently, in Arizona, a self-driving Uber vehicle with a minder onboard struck and killed a cyclist. The deadly accident has raised familiar—and serious—philosophical and legal questions surrounding the rise of autonomous vehicles.
There’s an important philosophical debate already being waged over self-driving cars and safety in the wake of this tragedy, but the fact that I’d have to look up the meanings of “deontological” and “teleological” disqualifies me for that discussion. However, I am a practicing lawyer, and although I don’t practice personal injury law, I do have sufficient bona fides to opine on tort law and autonomous vehicles.
Culpability in the Arizona crash will be legally decided in accordance with the principles of tort law. A tort is, simply, a civil wrong - that is a wrongful act causing harm to a member of society. This is not to be confused with a criminal act, which requires a mental state and action that causes a violation of a criminal law. Torts require four elements, and all four elements must be met, or you don’t have a case:
- A civic duty
- A breach of that civic duty
- The breach of the civic duty led directly to a harm
- The harm resulted in damages
Using the framework of tort law, in the event that an autonomous vehicle causes an accident, it is the first two elements of a tort—there was a duty, and that duty was breached—that are significant. In this case, there may be several legal duties.
Uber and Autonomous Vehicle
One legal duty could be found with Uber or the car manufacturer (by “manufacturer,” I mean the designer, software provider, and everyone else in the supply chain). Uber and the manufacturer have a legal duty to not design or manufacture a defective product. The question here is whether the Uber self-driving car involved in the accident was defectively designed or manufactured, and whether it was Uber or the car manufacturer that put a defective vehicle on the road.
What makes a self-driving car defective? Answers to that question will be based on the “standard of care.” Reviewing the standard of care means understanding what a reasonable car manufacturer and self-driving car modifier would do for safety. Lawyers will review what other self-driving car companies, such as Waymo, have done with regard to numbers and types of sensors, as well as bring in self-driving car experts. More standard questions as to the effectiveness of the car’s brakes may also come into play.
There are also legal duty questions about the Uber employee who was in the vehicle and who was allegedly not looking at the road at the time of the accident. I would assume the minder was in the car to help prevent accidents. If that’s the case, she probably had a legal duty. However, what if she had been in the car for a sufficient amount of time to reasonably become fatigued and had no way of pulling over? Driving long hours is hard enough. Being a passenger—not controlling the car but needing to keep a sharp eye on a road—seems like a monotonous job.
If Uber had the minder in the car too long to be effective, that may be a design defect. On the other hand, if the employee could have pulled the car over to rest, then she may have breached her duty. Going one step further, does Uber or the car manufacturer have a duty to put in a sensor that would detect when the minder became fatigued and instruct the car to automatically pull over?
The fault is not all on the car manufacturer and Uber. The woman who was killed was crossing a well-trafficked road at night pushing a bicycle. Did she breach a legal duty? If so, and if the court finds that the car manufacturer or Uber breached its legal duty, then it is a case of comparative negligence and the court may reduce the car manufacturer’s or Uber’s damages in accordance with the amount of negligence of the woman who was killed.
Arizona is a comparative negligence state, which means someone can recover damages under tort even if he or she were 99 percent at fault (compared with Maryland, which is a contributory negligence state, where the plaintiff gets nothing even if he or she is 1 percent at fault). Under Arizona law, however, there won’t be any recovery if the deceased intentionally caused the accident—so that raises the question of intent.
More to Come
While the Uber case reached an undisclosed settlement it would be overly optimistic to think that this accident will be the last accident involving a self-driving car. While it’s too early to tell how these self-driving car cases will play out in the courts, this is one area of the law that may not need to struggle to keep up with changes in technology (such as privacy law). Traditional tort law provides a legal framework for deciding fault and damages for self-driving cars.
The crossroads of law, technology and society is an interesting place to be. This article is the first part of our legal series by our legal experts at CableLabs examining the impact of new technologies on law and how we live. Make sure to subscribe to our blog to stay current on our legal series.
Yes, I am an attorney, but I’m not your attorney and this article does not create an attorney-client relationship. I am licensed to practice law in Colorado and have based the information presented on US laws. This article is legal information and should not be seen as legal advice. You should consult with an attorney before you rely on this information.
The Rise of Autonomous Bots and Vehicles
I live in Los Altos, California, a small town in the heart of Silicon Valley. I’ve been an early adopter of autonomous bots and vehicles—voluntarily and involuntarily—for over 5 years. I’m talking about a new class of appliances, I call them “Autonomous Citizens,” that have both permission and ability to move autonomously completing tasks in my home, at work or in my community.
When these autonomous creatures first showed up in my world, I was in awe and had some trepidation, but today I live with them without a great sense of novelty -- they do their thing and I do mine. It’s weird to admit this, knowing the rest of the world isn’t having such a “First World” experience. But, given my journey so far, I believe it will be less than a decade before the rest of the world feels the same way.
I predict, autonomous citizens, in many shapes and sizes, will become as ubiquitous as our smartphones. (Keep in mind smartphones were just coming to market about a decade ago and now we can’t live without them). This emerging technology, which relies heavily on advancements in networking, sensors, A.I., big data and new materials, can solve many big problems, but will also create new ones.
This makes Autonomous Bots & Vehicles an area ripe for innovation and the topic of our next Innovation Boot Camp, a 3 ½ day immersive innovation training April 24-27, 18 in Sunnyvale, CA. Here, I’d like to share a couple of funny stories to help illustrate what’s happening in this space and why this emerging technology is on our radar at CableLabs.
When the Autos Moved In…
Years ago, an inspired group at Google created a moonshot innovation challenge to eliminate “death by car.” A worthy endeavor, given car accidents caused 40k deaths in the US and 1.3M Internationally in 2016 alone. The number of injuries, some permanent, are 10x higher. Google decided to make a big bet and the Google X autonomous vehicle project (now called Waymo) moved their headquarters into an unmarked building near my home. And soon after, my new neighbor became ground zero for the automated vehicle revolution.
Waymo started testing these autonomous vehicles in my community about 5 years ago, and I have personally driven in front of, behind, and next to self-driving cars of various shapes and sizes. At first on a weekly basis, and now almost every single day since. You may be surprised to hear, I have no concern walking or riding my bike around them anymore. Many people in my community, myself included, will privately admit that we have provoked the vehicles many times just to see how they would react (tailgating, lane drifts, cut offs, etc. ). I don’t recommend doing this, but it was just part of our collective curiosity phase!
Auto Observations and the Lost Ticket
I could share so many annoying, strange and funny stories about autonomous cars, but one stands out. A couple of years ago, only a few blocks from my home, a Mountain View police officer pulled over one of these vehicles and found no driver at the wheel. The officer had no idea who to ticket for driving too slow on a major street. This occurrence made local front-page news and was the talk of the town. Ultimately, the ticket and a major hand-slap found its way to Google, and rogue testing of vehicles without human assistance was outlawed on our roads. Citizens breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing this news, and multiple car companies (all testing cars in my area) now only conducted their testing with drivers at the ready—just in case. In April 2018, this will change, and unmanned vehicles can be permitted by the California State DMV.
On a more personal level, I come across the Waymo vehicles every day and have luckily never seen a collision or close call. Reports show that the number of times human assistance is required is very low, especially for the Waymo Cars.
I notice that autonomous vehicles drive with far more respect and consideration than most human-driven cars on the road. However, they can be annoyingly slow to turn and will follow the speed limit rigidly, even despite the flow of traffic—when drivers are bending the rules a bit. However, just as this blog was in development, a woman in Tempe, AZ was walking her bike at night across a multi-lane road (no crosswalks in sight) and was struck by an Uber autonomous vehicle which had an assistance driver sitting behind the wheel on a test run. Sadly, this woman died from her injuries and the accident is under investigation. I was heartbroken for all involved in this tragedy. Uber and Toyota Motors both halted testing until the investigation is complete.
Waymo and others continue to test in our area as they utilize different technologies, perhaps more mature. I won’t pretend, my trepidation has risen on this news -- were the sensors blocked, networks too slow, not reliable or untrained for this scenario? To me, this is like the early days of flight. I expect many innovations are possible to help protect pedestrians and assistance drivers avoid such horrors in the future, and I know the industry will learn from it and press on.
Bot to the Future
As a career innovator and witness to many exponential market climbs and disruptions, I believe that the autonomous bots and vehicles space is an area ripe for innovation opportunity, challenges, and deceptive disruption. As you can see from the CableLabs Emerging Technology Timeline, it’s on our radar. New control points for networking, communication, entertainment, commerce and business are up for grabs with these new Autonomous Citizens. And it’s not just on the roads, soon we will have Nanobots in our bodies, autonomous gardening bots in our yards, delivery drones and other services bots in our homes and offices.
For example, my home has 2 long haired pets, “Mr. Fluffy” our long haired cat and “Buddy” our Golden Retriever Dog, with non-stop shedding driving me crazy. So, a couple of years ago I became an early adopter (and champion) of autonomous bots in the home and brought a Roomba home to help with my sanity and drive my animals crazy 😊. It took a few weeks for our new “Autonomous Citizen” to map the place and build a cleaning schedule optimized for the level of shedding of our beloved pets. After a while, we got used to each other and for many months had an almost dander free home.
Then one day our Roomba went missing and all that remained was a base station with it’s blinking light and beacon calling the Roomba back home day after day, week after week. Tragically the Roomba has never returned. And, we have looked everywhere for it, now assuming it drove out our front door accidentally, perhaps one of our teens or their friends left the front door open without noticing. My kids, insist the cat let the Roomba out instead 😊. Again, my trepidation about these bots rises and I wonder could my home network and sensors have been more alerting or sensitive to such a scenario, or perhaps a “Find my Bot” App should be developed. That’s the way of innovation! I expect new solutions will come to market to ease the transition to this new class of appliances in our lives, much like the adoption of dishwashers, toasters and coffee makers.
Bots at Bootcamp!
If you find this emerging technology as compelling and as ripe for innovation as I do, join us at CableLabs’ Innovation Boot Camp, April 24-27, 2018, in Sunnyvale, California. Early bird pricing ending soon, sign up ASAP.
You do not need to be an expert in the autonomous bots and vehicles to participate. Focusing on the topic simply allows us to build a learning lab of real-life situations as you apply new techniques for generating breakthrough ideas through our tours, workshops and coaching. And there is no better place to explore this emerging technology than in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Got a great autonomous bot or vehicle story? Then add a comment, we’d love to hear!
About the Author
Michelle Vendelin is CableLabs’ Director of Innovation Services. She is instrumental in facilitating innovation sprints and coaching innovation at CableLabs. She is the producer of the Innovation Boot Camp, CableLabs’ bi-annual immersive innovation training, featuring daily keynotes and workshops with Phil McKinney, CEO of CableLabs and best selling author/podcaster.