Law and Technology
Is the Law Ready for
Yes, with one big exception.
are allowed—or even mandated—on
Courts will have to determine who
is responsible in situations where a human or a vehicle could have intervened
but did not. On the one hand, courts
tend to avoid questions of machine liability if they can find a human operator to blame. A court recently placed
the blame of an airplane accident exclusively on the airline for incorrectly balancing the cargo hold despite
evidence the autopilot was engaged
at the time of the accident. 7 On the
other hand, there is presumably a
limit on how much responsibility
a company can transfer to vehicle
owners merely because they clicked
on a terms of service agreement. In
the fatal Tesla crash last year, the
deceased driver seemingly assumed
the risk of engaging the autopilot.
The pedestrian killed this year by
an Uber driverless car took on no
such obligation. In its centuries of
grappling with new technologies,
however, the common law has seen
tougher problems than these and
managed to fashion roughly sensi-
ble remedies. Uber will likely settle
Assigning liability in the event of
a driverless car crash is not, in the
run of things, all that tall an order.
There is, however, one truly baffling
question courts will have to confront
when it comes to driverless cars—and
autonomous systems in general: What
to do about genuinely unforeseeable
categories of harm?
Imagine a time when driverless
cars are wildly popular. They are saf-
er than vehicles with human drivers
and their occupants can watch mov-
ies or catch up on email while travel-
ing in the vehicle. Notwithstanding
some handwringing by pundits and
the legal academy, courts have little
trouble sorting out who is liable for
the occasional driverless car crash.
When someone creates a product
that is supposed to move people
around safely and instead crashes,
judges assign liability to whoever
built the vehicle or vehicles involved
in the accident.
There are some difficult cases on
the horizon. Policymakers will have to
determine just how much safer driverless cars will need to be compared
to human-operated cars before they
There are some
on the horizon.