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A Few Ethical and Legal Considerations Regarding The Future of Autonomous Vehicles

This blog was written by senior personal injury lawyer Judith Hull and summer student Aaron Ender.

Autonomous vehicles are becoming more common, with manufacturers such as Tesla testing out auto-driving systems for their vehicles. Many cars now come standard with safety features such as automatic emergency braking, but what about vehicles that do all the driving for you? These autonomous vehicles pose ethical and safety questions, which are important to consider whether you are in those vehicles, near them in your own vehicle, or on the street as a pedestrian.

Ethical Issues:

Since these vehicles will presumably be programmed for optimum safety, a question arises regarding both who is determining how to program it for optimum safety, and how the programming will be designed. 

For example, if the vehicle was in a position such that there was an inevitable collision, but it could choose between hitting 1) a pedestrian who just darted onto the road, 2) another vehicle on the road, or 3) crashing into a barrier, injuring the driver, how would one go about deciding in advance which option to pick? All options will entail serious damage to someone. 

Who Will Determine How to Program the Vehicles:

Presumably, as truly self-driving cars become more common, the legislature will impose laws that bind all automakers such that they comply with certain safety standards and requirements. 

This is arguably the most likely outcome, as this safety issue is too significant to allow individual automakers broad discretion. The largest obstacle in this regard is the speed at which the legislature operates, as legislation should be released as soon as possible, and changes may be needed rather quickly as we learn and experience more regarding autonomous vehicles.

How the Programming Will Be Designed:

The benefit to using these autonomous vehicles is that a number of factors will be weighed and processed much faster than a human could process, which optimizes results and prevents human error. If these vehicles can reduce the amount of injuries and fatalities, this may be a benefit to our safety overall. 

The drawback, however, is that one might think that these factors are not so readily weighable to be processed in an algorithm. One’s inclination may be that human lives are readily reduced into fixed variables. 

Further, another issue arises with regard to how to value human lives relative to one another. For example, should the vehicle aim to protect the driver more than anyone else? If the vehicle has the option to either collide with an elderly person, or collide with a younger person, and can account for age, should one age demographic be favoured over another? 

Another consideration is the need to handle driving customs. For example, should the vehicle be programmed to remain strictly at the speed limit, or should it be permitted to drive slightly above the limit as people all too commonly do? 

These issues largely have yet to be answered in full.

Legal Issues:

It is safe to say that almost everyone has either been in a motor vehicle accident, or knows someone who has been in a motor vehicle accident. When these accidents occur, and one party sues, the suit is often for negligence. How will negligence claims be handled in light of these autonomous vehicles?

When suing for injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident, there is typically not much trouble finding out who hit you. Usually, the driver of the vehicle can be sued in negligence for failing to take proper care in driving their vehicle, resulting in a crash. However, if one is hit by an autonomous vehicle, there will no longer be a human driver to sue. 

Assuming that the programming in the vehicle works properly, and the rest of the vehicle is in good working order, it is difficult to determine if there was any fault upon which one can sue. For example, in the above situation in which the vehicle decides which obstacle to collide with, the “driver” would not be negligent, because there would in fact be no actual driving at all. The manufacturer also would not be negligent, since the car was in proper condition, and for example, simply ran its programming to determine which obstacle to collide with.

New legislation is likely required to fill these gaps in the law. As the law progresses with society, the legislature will soon need to catch up.

If you are involved in a motor vehicle accident, whether in an autonomous vehicle or a regular vehicle, speak to a personal injury lawyer at McKenzie Lake Lawyers LLP by calling (519) 672-5666.

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