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Self Driving Cars

As technology advances, we are able to build machines to perform functions that were once the sole domain of humans. One idea is the building of autonomous, or self-driving cars. These are installed with sensors to detect their environment. These vehicles are then able to navigate the terrain without the need for human input.

There is no doubt that the idea of self-driving cars is popular and highly marketable. But, the closer we get to being able to actually build a car that is entirely autonomous, questions and problems start to arise. The prime example is that of privacy. For example, what information can and will be stored by the car – will it store information on the locations you travel to, or your preferred routes? Will that information then be provided to companies and other bodies?

Another question that is unanswered is: “who has control of the car?” No person is navigating, accelerating or braking. But think about it in this way – if someone has an accident with the car, whose fault is it? Is it the owner of the car? Is it the manufacturer? The programmer? Can anyone be blamed?

Today, if there was a collision involving one or more cars, there would likely be an investigation by Police. As a result, Police may charge, or issue infringement notices to, one or more of the drivers, depending on the circumstances. But what happens when there is no ‘driver’?

In NSW, the word “drive” is defined in the Road Transport Act 2013. To be ‘driving’ you are required to “be in control of the steering, movement or propulsion or a vehicle.”

Self-driving cars are designed with sensors that plot out the environment around the car. They are programmed to steer, move and propel the vehicle without any human input. It may work smoothly if every vehicle on our roads was a self-driving car. But whenever you have people driving on the roads, you will have human error. That is when the problems arise.

In this exercise, it is also worth looking at the definition of negligence in NSW which is defined as something that a “reasonable and prudent person would not do.” Now, consider this example:-

There is a road with two lanes in each direction. A self-driving car is travelling in the left lane. In the right lane is a car driven by a person. The person, in the right lane, swerves left to avoid an obstacle on the road. Does the self-driving car also swerve left, or does it maintain its position in the lane? And if it does maintain its position in the lane, resulting in a collision – is that a ‘reasonable and prudent’ decision?

Then, what Police assess that the action taken by the self-driving car was not what a ‘reasonable and prudent’ person would do? Ordinarily, the Police would issue an infringement for negligent driving. If the car was a self-driving car – who does the ticket get made out to? Is it the owner of the vehicle who is sitting in the car? Even if they are not in control of the steering, movement or propulsion of the car leading up to and at the point of impact? Is it the manufacturer who has programed the vehicle to stay within the lane? Is it fair for either one of those people to receive an infringement in those circumstances?

Undoubtedly, there has been a collision – but what does that mean for holding people accountable for their choices, decisions and actions or inactions?

These are the questions we need to start asking ourselves as this type of technology gets closer to becoming a reality.

Image Credit – Whilerests ©

Written by John Sutton on May 8, 2018

John is the National Director of Criminal Law at Armstrong Legal. The experience John possesses, being a high quality mix of defence and prosecution skills, together with his team at Armstrong Legal, mean you can be certain of accurate, dependable and practical advice on how your matter can dealt with. View John's profile

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