Driverless vehicles: A rising global trend
Of late, the march of the introduction of the autonomous or driverless vehicles has been relentless and unabated around the world.
In line with the global move away from the polluting internal combustion engine to the environment friendly emission free electric-powered engine, many players in the automotive industry have appeared to embrace both the electrification and the automation of the automobile.
What are the features of a driverless car?
Many of the major manufacturers have and are in the process of rolling out electric cars with autonomous driving features.
The development and progress in autonomous driving technology has now allowed many manufacturers of motor vehicles to incorporate many autonomous features into the modern motor vehicle such as active cruise control, lane assist, automatic braking, automatic steering, automatic parking etc. The new marketing and selling mantra of these autonomous features has been the emphasis on “Safety”.
A very significant and major manufacturer of electric vehicles has even gone so far as to advertise that their electric powered motor vehicles with autonomous driving features are far superior and safer than unequipped motor vehicles. In fact, they are even prepared to self-insure their autonomous driving featured electric motor vehicles at lower insurance premiums than what can be offered by prevailing commercial motor insurers.
This over exuberance in the automotive industry does not seem to have been dampened despite a spate of recent accidents in the last few years. For instance, the recent fatal collision between Uber’s self-driving car and a pedestrian caused a furore in the global community. Collisions, both major and minor, in various countries highlight the clear and present dangers of the driverless vehicle in an environment where these autonomous vehicles share the road with human operated vehicles.
Much has been written about the myriad legal issues that may arise once driverless cars share the roads with other humans or human operated vehicles.
Collisions and other mishaps occurring on the road between driverless or autonomous vehicles and other human road users are inevitable. However, the resulting Blame Game creates a Legal Conundrum. The road, as we all know, is typically a very dangerous environment. Users of the road include pedestrians, riders of bicycles and motorcycles, drivers of all forms of vehicles etc. To ensure and promote the safe use of our roads, many rules and laws are in place to regulate the behavior of the human users of the road.
In this dangerous environment, the driverless vehicles have to operate and interact with other less automated road users i.e. human operated vehicles and pedestrians.
How does the Law protect me if I sustain a personal injury because of a driverless vehicle?
In the common law of tort and negligence applicable to road traffic collisions and accidents which holds sway in the majority of common law countries, the principle issue of Liability between road users on the road is one of a reasonable duty of care expected of a road user for himself/herself and other fellow road users.
Statutory Laws and Regulations are widely in place to govern the safe use of the road by all human road users and within these rules of conduct there remain a clear underlying notion of a reasonable duty of care. A myriad of traffic signs, rules, laws and regulations exist to ensure the human user of the road exhibit a set of law abiding and safe driving behavior. In short, the law assumes that there are no perfect human road users, be it a pedestrian, cyclist, driver, rider and/or an operator of a vehicle on the road.
In a utopian world, one would expect driverless cars to exist harmoniously with other human road users be it as a pedestrian, cyclist and/or driver of a vehicle. However, in reality, this cannot be further from the truth. The interaction between Man (human operated vehicles) and Machine on the road makes for a more dangerous environment. In a contest between Man versus Machine operated vehicles on our roads, there is clearly no level playing field. The driverless vehicle is no more than a machine operated vehicle with highly touted autonomous features and capabilities. Such autonomous vehicles are ultimately created and programmed by humans and they cannot truly be expected to exhibit and respond to the full range of possible human behavior of a Man operated vehicle.
A Machine operated driverless vehicle essentially exists and operates in a binary, black and white world of fixed instructions, programs and inputs. In theory, the machine operated vehicle would be operated perfectly in full accordance with the said myriad of traffic signs, rules, laws and regulations. In contrast, humans exist in a world that is far more grey than black and white. Human behaviour has necessitated a multitude of safety precautions and regulations to ensure the safety of the human users on the road.
In spite of efforts to render use of the road safe, the frailties and uniqueness of human behavior would inevitably result in regular and constant non-adherence with traffic laws and, rules and regulations. Some human drivers are more law abiding than others. No two human drivers are identical to one another in terms of skill, experience, knowledge and adherence to the applicable rules, regulations and laws when driving on the road. In a sea of man and machine operated vehicles, the risks and dangers involved will likely increase exponentially.
In a contest of human error versus machine error, one would still place a bet that the effects of human error may well be far less significant than machine error. Human error would be limited to the individual driver, rider, cyclist or pedestrian. The effects would be limited to that individual’s error and there remains and exists an irreplaceable human instinct of self-preservation which would ultimately act to avert or mitigate a crash or collision despite human error.
Machine error in an autonomous vehicle would and could be far worse. A glitch and malfunction in the computer that drives the Machine could arguably cause much worse crashes that any human error might bring about.
A machine is not imbued with the human instinct of self-preservation and a human conscience. It would be lacking in human behavioral traits that inevitably would mitigate, limit, avert or modify any outcome of error in the operation of the vehicle.
In a world where vehicles are operated by humans, the imminent and impending introduction of driverless cars is likely to create one of the greatest Legal Conundrums in modern history when it comes to the Blame Game.
Perhaps, the better solution for the time being would be to separate autonomous vehicles from human operated vehicles and other human users. Driverless vehicles should only operate in road environment where there is no interaction with other human operated vehicles or human road users.
Unless and until the technology of artificial intelligence can fully equip machines with the full range of human traits and behavior, the world would be indeed be a far more dangerous place if we have to share our roads with driverless vehicles.
In the Blame Game between Man versus Machine on our public roads, the legal system would have the unenviable task of solving this Legal Conundrum.
Have a question about driverless cars?
If you have any questions about driverless vehicles, you can request a quote with Patrick Yeo from Withers KhattarWong or get a Quick Consult with lawyers of similar expertise. With Quick Consult, from a transparent, flat fee of $49, a lawyer will call you on the phone within 1-2 days to give you legal advice.
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.