Driving off the cliff of legal risks
Posted by aogTuesday, 04 December 2007 at 10:55 TrackBack Ping URL

Via Instapundit is an article on automated cars. The money quote is

Smart cars will never be infallible, but they don’t have to be. They just have to be better than the drivers who now cause more than 90 percent of traffic accidents and kill a million of their fellow humans per year.

I almost laughed out loud at that. While on the surface it seems perfectly reasonable, it’s obviously complete divorced from reality. In a rational world, yes, as soon as the car automation systems were statistically superior to drivers, we would adopt them. But that fails to take in to account the lawyers. When old boomer A has an accident, our legal system is still not to the point where the victims or their estate can sue A’s mom, or everyone in his family tree for negligence in creating him. But the first time an automated car has an accident, the manufacturer will be sued out of existence. Our legal system says that any change doesn’t have to just be better, it has to be perfect. All existing risky systems are basically grand-fathered in so that the legal risk is near zero, and that’s the real standard against which automated cars will have to compete. One is left wondering how we’ve gotten to the state where lawyers, and not actual risks, determine our technological advancements.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
Bret Tuesday, 04 December 2007 at 13:30

In my standard talk on the future of robotics, one of my slides exactly agrees with. It says that the technology for automated cars will be robust and inexpensive by 2020, but that it’s likely to take society decades or even generations to adopt robotic cars for legal and other reasons.

The one caveat is that there is quite a huge and growing demand for cars that drive themselves. As we take more and more drivers licenses away from our rapidly aging population and essentially leave them stranded in their homes, there may possibly be enough of a call to “do something” causing tort reform at least for this particular application.

Gideon7 Tuesday, 04 December 2007 at 17:12

Currently the main obstacle to US space tourism is the inability of Congress to grant a lawsuit exemption. In reaction to Congress’ obstinancy some states are taking their own action. The Virginia Spaceflight Liability and Immunity Act was passed in April.

Annoying Old Guy Tuesday, 04 December 2007 at 17:48


Yes, clearly in the long run the legal system will be adapted to enable automated cars. But I expect that to take vastly longer than getting to point where (statistically) the automation is safer than the average driver, as Bret says.

The boomer point is interesting, since it is to a large extent the boomer who drove the “it is always somebody’s fault and he owes me a lot of money” change in our legal system. My guess is that the legal solution will be delayed because the boomers won’t be able to accept the fact that they can’t have huge payouts for every accident and have companies building the cars at the same time.

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