Autonomous vehicles – the ethical and legal implications

Autonomous vehicles – the ethical and legal implications

21st December 2017

Since the Government’s autumn budget, it has become clear that autonomous/driverless vehicles are on the national agenda.

While other countries may be ahead of the UK in debating autonomous vehicles, we are obviously bracing ourselves for the huge cultural, legal and social change that driverless vehicles will bring in a few decades’ time.

Note that by ‘driverless, we mean ‘totally without human interaction’ – of course, there have been some autonomous technologies in cars for some time, such as cruise control, lane assist, rain-sensing wipers, auto-braking, etc. The current pace of technology means it’s only a matter of time before fully-self-driving cars are on our roads.

There are a number of ethical and legal considerations, though, that must be dealt with before we are even close to allowing such technology on our roads.

Ethical considerations

Whose safety will be prioritised?

This is without doubt the trickiest issue faced by autonomous vehicles, the authorities and the manufacturers. In the event of an inevitable collision, who does the car aim to ‘protect’?

Imagine an autonomous car heading straight for a pedestrian on a bridge, will it drive off the bridge to save the pedestrian?

Many people believe that the cars should prioritise the safety of non-occupants, because they would be deemed the vulnerable road user in line with current law.

Others suggest that we might need to change our way of thinking in that regard, because who would buy an autonomous car if they knew it would prioritise anybody else over the driver, the owner and occupant? What if someone wilfully jumped out in front of your car, only for the car to crash and injure you?

Should a person abiding by the Highway Code be preferred over someone acting in contravention? Should the young and fit be favoured over the elderly or infirm?

Mercedes-Benz has, in fact, confirmed that its vehicles would aim to protect the occupant of the vehicle, simply because that is the ‘known’ quantity, and it would not sacrifice its owners

It’s a huge debate and we’re frankly glad we don’t need to help resolve it!

Legal issues

There are wide-ranging legal implications from the introduction of vehicles driven by computers, which will be of great interest to Premier Medical’s clients and partner organisations.

The insurance industry claims that insurance will be required to cover the cost of any incidents caused by failure in the software.

Some brokers are already marketing products claim to protect motorists against claims caused by hacking or software failure of systems such as self-parking or adaptive cruise control.

The Government looks set to demand compulsory insurance for vehicles so that the owner must also ensure that there is an insurance policy in place that covers the manufacturers’ and any other entities’ product liability.

It’s a huge undertaking and, again, will owners feel happy about effectively paying insurance premiums to cover the manufacturers of the car they are driving?

The Government has also suggested that there may be a need for “compulsory product liability insurance for automated vehicles to also cover injuries to the ‘not at fault’ automated vehicle driver”.

Quite how we will be able to tell when a driver does or doesn’t have control of a vehicle, in relation to the precise time an accident occurs, remains to be seen.

There are also significant data protection issues to consider, which is a different area of law, but one which becomes relevant when our cars will come to know pretty much everything about us.

It is a fascinating area and one which we are intrigued to see unfold – even if that unfolding is likely to happen slowly over the next 20/30 years!