Autonomous Vehicles: The Future, or Death Traps?

Source: PBS

1.35 million: The number of people who die in a car accident every year, that’s approximately 3700 a day, making automotive crashes the third largest cause of death in the United States. Ninety-four percent of these crashes are caused by avoidable driver errors leading many people to support autonomous vehicles or self-driving cars. These vehicles are designed to be free from mistakes humans commonly make, potentially saving thousands of lives by reducing injury and death from speeding and drunk driving. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has turned the state into a proving ground for autonomous cars. Ducey signed an executive order in 2015 instructing state agencies to undertake “any necessary steps to support the testing and operation of self-driving cars on public roads within Arizona.” Since then, Uber, Waymo, Lyft, Intel, GM, and others have set up shop there, testing self-driving cars in real-world conditions — a necessity for eventually integrating them into cities. However, the integration hasn’t gone incident-free. In 2018 a self-driving vehicle operated by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, in Tempe, Arizona. This incident caused concern among both citizens and politicians for the future safety on the road; furthermore, the accident raised a crucial question: who is liable for the death? The manufacturer of the car? The designers of the AI? The state? In Herzberg’s case, the courts split the blame among Uber, the company’s autonomous vehicle (AV), the safety driver in the car, the victim, and the state of Arizona. Even though it was eventually resolved, the incident made it abundantly clear that the current legal system isn’t equipped to solve many of the ethical and legal questions that accompany AVs.

Since the incident in Tempe, lawmakers and even academics have been proposing policies aimed to make substantial use of AVs a reality. Following the incident, Governor Ducey issued an updated order, which allowed fully autonomous operation on public roads without an operator if those vehicles meet a “minimal risk condition.” This means the vehicle must achieve a “reasonably safe state … upon experiencing a failure” in the vehicle’s autonomous systems. The new order also requires fully autonomous cars to comply with registration and insurance requirements and to meet any applicable federal laws. Furthermore, it requires the state Departments of Transportation and Public Safety and all other pertinent state agencies to take steps to support fully autonomous vehicles. This policy is designed to reduce the risk of self-driving cars while still encouraging their adoption. However, it does not address the issue of liability, which I believe is paramount when discussing AVs’ legality.

Fortunately, researchers at Columbia Engineering and Columbia Law created a “joint fault-based liability rule that they say can be used to regulate both self-driving car manufacturers and human drivers,” as outlined in an Insurance Journal article. The researchers used game theory to model a world with interacting players who try to select their actions to optimize their own goals. The players in this scenario are lawmakers, AV manufacturers, AVs, and the human driver. Each player had their strategy, which represented their real-life intentions. To capture the complex interaction among all the players, the researchers applied game theory methods to see which strategy each player settles on so that others will not take advantage of their decision. The article describes how the team found that “an optimally designed liability policy is critical to help prevent human drivers from developing moral hazards and assisting the AV manufacturer with a tradeoff between traffic safety and production costs.” These issues can be solved through increased government subsidies to AV manufacturers, which would reduce production costs, would greatly encourage manufacturers to produce AVs that outperform human drivers substantially and improve overall traffic safety and efficiency. Additionally, the model found that if AV manufacturers are not regulated in terms of AV technology specifications or are not properly subsidized, AV manufacturers tend to be purely profit-oriented and destructive to the overall traffic system. Using this research, offer lawmakers a reasonable framework to design precise policy options that ensure millions of drivers’ safety and security, while ensuring that future innovation continues in this important area.

Exploring the moral & ethical dimensions of emerging policy and technology issues.