Self-driving cars – the very phrase sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. In fact, you can see this wonder of future technology in 2004’s I, Robot and 1990’s Total Recall, although the latter does include a human-shaped robot driver. But this science is actually a lot less fictional than you might realize. Companies all over the world, from Google to Mercedes-Benz, are working on prototypes for self-driving cars, and some are already hitting the streets, albeit in a limited way thus far.
Less than a month ago, Google invited a select group of journalists to experience its self-driving cars first-hand. Their self-driving SUVs hit the streets—with a human driver at the ready to handle any mishaps—around Google’s headquarters in California. Their smaller model that has been likened to a gumdrop is only ready for closed-course driving so far. The reports seem to be largely positive, although it’s clear that these “adorable” technological marvels aren’t ready to be let out on their own just yet.
In a move that is somehow both surprising and completely expected, Apple is rumored to be working on their own self-driving car project. It’s hard to know whether this project is a full-fledged car of its own, a self-driving car operating system, or something else entirely. Apple is keeping a tight lid on whatever it is for now, but we do know they’ve been hiring automotive engineers and executives. Rumors say that Apple’s car project—whatever it is—might be slated to launch sometime in 2019.
Japanese company Robot Taxi Inc. is planning to begin testing a self-driving car service sometime next year. Robot Taxi’s goal is to have their technology fully operational and ready to deploy in time for the 2020 Olympics Games in Tokyo. This is by far the most aggressive and firmest timeline that has been proposed. Most companies, including Google, will not yet commit to a definite timeline.
The Wave of the Future
These aren’t the only companies making plans for self-driving cars. Virtually every major automotive company, including Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, and GM, is working on self-driving technology. With billions (at least) going into the research and development of self-driving cars, we will almost certainly see them out on the road sooner rather than later. But what does this really mean for the average person?
One of the big up sides of self-driving cars is that they will, supposedly, be much safer than human drivers, reducing fatalities. Research indicates that autonomous cars could reduce traffic fatalities by as much as 90%. In the U.S. that would mean saving 300,000 lives over the course of a decade. Globally, 10 million fatalities could be avoided during that time period.
These numbers are encouraging, but it won’t happen overnight. There will be a necessary transition period during which self-driving cars and traditional human drivers will be on the roads together. Researchers at the University of Michigan suggest that roads could actually be more dangerous during this transition. Andrew Moore, a dean at Carnegie Mellon, believes that increased accidents during this period will stall the progress of self-driving cars, possibly for several years.
Despite the difficulties of transitioning to this new technology, all the present science indicates that self-driving cars will eventually prove to be a huge boon for highway safety.
What About Liability?
So even though self-driving cars are expected to be super safe, they will get into accidents. If the car is at fault for an accident, who is actually liable? Is it the owner of the car, the company who designed the car and the software, or is it the car itself? Attorney John Frank Weaver makes an argument that we should extend legal personhood to robots, in which case the robot itself could be held liable and, if necessary, sued.
If you’re thinking of Skynet, you’re not alone. However, we already have a precedent for extending legal personhood to non-human entities. This is the fundamental concept behind corporations. This type of “personhood” is more about the law than any high-flown philosophical concepts about what—or who—a person really is.
Extending personhood to robots could save a lot of confusion and messy legal situations involving self-driving cars. This would mean that the car itself could be insured and could be held liable for causing accidents.
There is a counterargument, though. Assigning liability to the robots themselves could lead to huge evasion of responsibility by corporations and owners. Additionally, robot personhood might be too much of a legal fiction to withstand reality. A corporation, as a legal person, generally has some form of income, meaning it can pay damages in a lawsuit. A self-driving car probably doesn’t have its own earnings. So the question of who is going to pay those damages when accidents inevitably happen is still unanswered.
Self-driving cars could, and probably will, save millions of lives, but it may be a rocky road getting there. There are still many questions to answer about how this new technology will fit into our lives and culture. And hey, they still don’t fly.