CALL them the Three Laws of Driverless Cars. This month, Germany’s transport minister, Alexander Dobrindt, proposed a bill to provide the first legal framework for autonomous vehicles. It would govern how such cars perform in collisions where lives might be lost.
The laws attempt to deal with what some call the “death valley” of autonomous vehicles: the grey area between semi-autonomous and fully driverless cars that could delay the driverless future.
Dobrindt wants three things: that a car always opts for property damage over personal injury; that it never distinguishes between humans based on categories such as age or race; and that if a human removes his or her hands from the steering wheel – to check email, say – the car’s manufacturer is liable if there is a collision.
“The change to the road traffic law will permit fully automatic driving,” says Dobrindt. It will put entirely autonomous cars on an equal legal footing to human drivers, he says.
Lack of clarity about who is responsible for the operation of such vehicles is a major point of confusion among manufacturers, consumers and lawyers. “The liability issue is the biggest one of them all,” says Natasha Merat at the University of Leeds, UK.
In the US, guidelines for companies testing driverless cars state that a human must keep their attention on the road at all times. This is also an assumption behind UK insurance for driverless cars, introduced earlier this year, which stipulates that a human “be alert and monitoring the road” at every moment.
“When you say ‘driverless cars’, people expect driverless cars. You know – no driver“
But that is clearly not what many people have in mind when thinking of driverless cars. “When you say ‘driverless cars’, people expect driverless cars,” Merat says. “You know – no driver.”
Such confusion may be partly to blame for two fatal crashes involving Tesla cars this year. In the US, Joshua Brown was allegedly watching a DVD when his vehicle crashed in autopilot mode, killing him. And in China, Gao Yaning died when his car hit a road-sweeping vehicle. His family believe the vehicle was in autopilot mode at the time and is suing Tesla.
“Consumer expectations have important legal implications,” says James Anderson, a lawyer and behavioural scientist at the RAND Corporation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Dobrindt and others favour a 10-second rule, which requires a human to be sufficiently alert to take control of the vehicle within 10 seconds. Similarly, Mercedes may require a driver to touch the wheel several times a minute.
But 10 seconds may not be enough. “Just because you’ve put your hands back on the wheel doesn’t mean you’re in control of the vehicle,” says Merat. She has found that people can need up to 40 seconds to regain focus, depending on what they were doing at the time. Because of the lack of clarity, Merat thinks some car-makers will wait until vehicles can be fully automated, without any human input whatsoever.
Driverless cars may end up being a form of public transport rather than vehicles you own, says Ryan Calo at Stanford University, California. That is happening in the UK and Singapore, where government-provided driverless “pods” are being launched.
That would go down poorly in the US, however. “The idea that the government would take over driverless cars and treat them as a public good would get absolutely nowhere here,” says Calo.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Who’s in control?”