Autonomous Vehicles Scrutinized Over Liability Amid 'Minor' Incidents

Cameron Aubernon
by Cameron Aubernon

Autonomous vehicles may need the Three Laws of Robotics to function in the future, while getting a handle on accident prevention remains a present concern.

Since September of last year, four of the 48 autonomous vehicles permitted to roam freely in California have found themselves involved in accidents, The Detroit News reports. Two of the accidents happened while the cars drove themselves, while the other pair occurred while their human occupant was behind the wheel.

The vehicles in question belonged to Google and Delphi, with the former linked to three of the four accidents. Both companies claimed they were not at fault, and that the accidents were minor in scope. An employee with the California Department of Motor Vehicles confirmed two of the accidents happened in autonomous mode at speeds below 10 mph, but no other information could be given due to confidentiality laws regarding collision reports.

The accidents come as autonomous vehicles are under ongoing scrutiny over safety and responsibility for whatever does happen in a given accident. Down the road, such a vehicle – which may have no means to override an action in the future – may decide to sacrifice the lives of its occupants in order to protect everyone else, a scenario among others likely to hold back the technology overall, according to BMW sales boss Ian Robertson:

The technology will be held back by the ultimate moral question on who’s responsible. An algorithm will make a decision which might not be acceptable from a cultural or societal point of view.

The potential solution may place full responsibility upon the occupant/driver, following an amendment to the United Nations’ Vienna Convention on Road Traffic made last year allowing assisted driving so long as “such systems can be overridden or switched off by the driver.” The 1968 convention previously banned autonomous vehicles outright when it came into force 38 years ago, declaring all drivers to maintain control of their vehicles at all times.

[Photo credit: Freightliner]

Cameron Aubernon
Cameron Aubernon

Seattle-based writer, blogger, and photographer for many a publication. Born in Louisville. Raised in Kansas. Where I lay my head is home.

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  • An innocent man An innocent man on May 16, 2015

    It's like everyone forgets their talking points on this one. The problem with (driver) education is that we don't spend enough money on it. That's the answer! Throw. More. Money. Geez, do I have to solve every issue?

  • NMGOM NMGOM on May 17, 2015

    WheelMcCoy - - - One of the unspoken, underlying issues that all the formal analysis of so-called "Driver Education" has not isolated and dealt with properly, is the marginal quality of the actual driver training that occurs (and has occurred) in the USA. I can certainly understand that teaching about traffic laws and how a car works is valuable, but tangential. Having hands-on driving under instruction for typically less than 10 hours with new drivers is miniscule. To be really effective would require much more: some European tutored driving courses offer between 50 and 100 contact hours, under increasingly demanding situations, with "distraction de-conditioning". As I have been saying, what is needed is much more rigorous and intense driver training (not "education"). Then more clearly observable positive effects will occur here in the USA (e.g., fewer violations; fewer crashes). A recent NY Times article (June 2012) began to address this, especially with regard to the Oregon program, which was above the national average (but still inadequate, in my view), and from which some positive results have been obtained: "One exception is Oregon, where state officials say that the driver education program has helped reduce teenage accidents and fatalities. Many safety experts say it is among the best programs in the country." "Since it overhauled driver training about a decade ago, Oregon has had a reduction of more than 55 percent in the number of 16-year-olds behind the wheel when someone is killed or injured in a crash and a drop of almost 40 percent for 17-year-olds, said Mr. Costales, who is also chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices." ref: ========================

    • See 5 previous
    • WheelMcCoy WheelMcCoy on May 18, 2015

      @NMGOM Ok! The NY Times piece is something I can chew on. Comparisons are relatively local, "with kids taking driving education outperforming kids who don't." If this were "German kids taking driving education outperforming American kids who don't", the article wouldn't work for me. I have read good things about graduated licensing which restricts night time driving and taking passengers, among other things. It's a sensible approach. Then there's the driver training refresher course that takes 5% off your insurance bill. The incentive sounds right, but it also attracts those who already know their limitations as drivers. The real problem are the drivers who think they don't need training when they really do. Hence, I see your desire to educate them while they are young. It could be effective for them! Old dogs (drivers lacking in self-awareness) who can't learn new tricks are better off with passive safety devices. Anyway, @PCH's information throws a little cold water on the Oregon stats. While blunt, he's also insightful and well-informed. Still, @NMGOM, you have made me take a second look.

  • Bob65688581 We bought zillions of German cars, despite knowing about WWII slave labor. Refusing to buy something for ideological reasons is foolish.Both the US and the EU have imposed tariffs, so the playing field is level. I'll buy the best price/quality, regardless of nationality.Another interesting question would be "Would you buy one of the many new European moderate-price EVs?" but of course they aren't sold here.Third interesting question: "Why won't Stellantis sell its best products in America?"
  • Freshblather No. Worried there will be malicious executable code built into the cars motherboard that could disable the Chinese cars in the event of hostilities between the west and China.
  • Bd2 Absolutely not - do not want to support a fascist, totalitarian regime.
  • SCE to AUX The original Capri was beautiful. The abomination from the 90s was no Capri, and neither is this.It looks good, but too similar to a Polestar. And what's with the whacked price?
  • Rover Sig Absolutely not. Ever.