Self-driving cars: who is to blame is not the question

Who is to blame when a self-driving car crashes? This question is posed by Elmar Degenhart, chief executive of Continental (Companies & Markets, March 7), and it’s easier to answer than he implies. Just as in a “regular” traffic accident, the movements of each car will need to be scrutinised and compared to the relevant traffic rules. If it turns out that I’ve caused the accident with my vehicle, whether my car was self-driving or not, then I (or my insurance) have to pay the bill.

If my car was driving itself, then if I believe the “driver” could have and should have avoided the accident, the manufacturer will get a damages claim, with justification. Then a judge will decide what I could have expected of my self-driving car, relying among other things on a large pile of legal disclaimers and my own behaviour. Because as long as the self-driving car’s vulnerability to malfunctions, hacking and miscalculations isn’t clear, manual intervention needs to remain possible anyway – just like the autopilot of an aircraft.

This is a good thing: it forces manufacturers to first make their systems safe before they start self-driving experiments with human lives at stake. Drivers, in turn, need to remain cautious when their tractors pass near vulnerable human bodies. So the question of who to blame isn’t interesting at all, although the industry’s attempt to use this debate to shift the responsibility to a neutral third party, such as a compensation fund, is a nice try.

What the debate should really be about is an ethical dilemma: what should my self-driving car do if, in an accident, it could save my life by taking that of another (or more than one other) road user?

If self-driving car manufacturers think they can answer that question, let them pick up the bill, too.

This article, written by NewTeam-partner Danny Mekic’, has been published in the Financial Times.

Leave a Reply