One of the most important issues with the autonomous cars of the future is the partitioning of liability. To that end, new legislation proposed in Germany would require a data recorder to log when the car is under autonomous or driver control to aid in the assignment of responsibility. But such a data recorder has privacy considerations. And it might be hacked. Would such a system deter buyers? Could Apple overcome all this?
The original story comes from Reuters. “Germany to require ‘black box’ in autonomous cars.” To quote:
Germany plans new legislation to require manufacturers of cars equipped with an autopilot function to install a black box to help determine responsibility in the event of an accident, transport ministry sources told Reuters on Monday.
No such legislation is being proposed in the U.S., likely to be one of the leading countries introducing this car technology starting in about 2020. Coincidentally, that’s when well-sourced rumors suggest that Apple will be releasing an electric car, the result of its secret Titan Project.
The Current Discussion & Research
Despite the fact that Germany seems to be getting out ahead of the liability problem, it’s not as if there hasn’t been heavy discussion in the U.S. on all segments of the technology, legal, infrastructure and customer-adoption. The best source of information I’ve seen comes from the Insurance Information Institute in its publication: “Self-Driving Cars and Insurance.”
Notable sections include these:
In January 2016 U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx released a new policy updating the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) 2013 preliminary policy statement on autonomous vehicles. In March 2016 the agency also announced a 10-year $3.9 billion commitment to support the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation. According to a statement, NHTSA will propose guidance to industry on establishing principles of safe operation for fully autonomous vehicles in mid-2016.
In terms of the hurdles faced by the industry, two sections stand out.
A survey by IEEE, a technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for humanity, of more than 200 experts in the field of autonomous vehicles found that of six possible roadblocks to the mass adoption of driverless, these three were ranked as the biggest obstacles: legal liability, policymakers and consumer acceptance. Cost, infrastructure and technology were seen as less of a problem. When respondents were asked to specify the year in which some of today’s commonplace equipment will be removed from mass-produced cars, the majority said that rear view mirrors, horns and emergency brakes will be removed by 2030, and steering wheels and gas/brake pedals will follow by 2035.
Elaborating on the liability aspects is a report from the RAND Corporation.
A study of the benefits self-driving vehicles by the RAND Corporation, released in 2016, includes a discussion of liability insurance options. The study, “Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policymakers,” explores the benefits, drawbacks and risks of autonomous vehicle use. According to the study, manufacturer liability is likely to increase, while personal liability is likely to decrease. Benefits include lower driver error that hopefully results in fewer vehicle crashes, better mobility to those otherwise impaired and drawbacks include an unquantified impact on occupations and economies based on public transit, crash repair. A named risk is inconsistent state regulations.
Discussion of the Issues
While both industry and the U.S. government are working on standards of operation and safety, the situation with the assignment of liability is still a bit sticky. Certainly, car insurance companies are looking to reduce payments for human-caused accidents as we move to higher and higher levels of car autonomy.
But there are other factors, such as the cost of replacing exotic electronic sensors when the driver takes control and causes an accident. Car makers will also seek liability insurance for any accident caused by their own systems.As for their own liability, car companies might try to make the customer pay for some of it with hidden insurance costs unless regulation intervenes. And can such a car even be stolen anymore? Owner biometric data could stop that for good.
Proving who (what) was at fault in an accident, with a black box, is the problem the German legislation aims to solve. However, there’s no indication (yet) that the U.S. Congress thinks this is a good idea.
Another outstanding issue is infrastructure. For a century, highways, road signs, and parking lots have been designed for human drivers. While sensors and algorithms are going to get a lot better, when sensors fail on older roads, is the driver responsible for putting the car itself (and by inference) themselves at risk? This happened recently when a Tesla driver was killed in autopilot mode. “…the car [failed to] notice[d] the big rig or the trailer ‘against a brightly lit sky.'”
A final issue is the handling of the black box’s log data. Even today, cars have elementary Event Data Recorders [EDR] computers that log certain performance and driver usage information. It’s still not firmly settled whether that data belongs to the driver or the car maker in a post-accident scenario. “Your Car is Spying on You—But Whom is it Spying For?”
In order to accurately determine who was in charge of the vehicle at the time of the accident, the circumstances, and the proper maintenance and operation of the car, a lot more data will have to be collected. There could be issues with how the extensive log data, demonstrating which entity was at fault, is divulged to courts. Worse, unless the black box is very secure, hackers might be able to access a driver’s travel history.
These factors seem like things Apple would be especially good at handling in light of its heavy experience with handling iPhone privacy and security.
However, as always, the psychology of drivers, misunderstandings related to the actual operation of the technology, the agendas of the car companies, complex insurance issues, inconsistent state regulations, and customary lack of attention to customer protection by the U.S. Congress could lead to murky waters ahead.
If Apple does things very right, an autonomous car could succeed beyond Apple’s wildest expectations. On the other hand, the government could end up claiming that, for the sake of National Security, it needs perpetual access, without a warrant, to every car’s black box in the country. Would Congress prohibit or encourage such monitoring?
It would be Apple vs. FBI. Rinse. Repeat.