Automated Highways: Havoc or Holy Grail?

Autonomous, driverless delivery vehicles are not far from reality, according to a new Royal Academy of Engineering report. "Autonomous Systems: Social, Legal and Ethical Issues" says unmanned vehicles and autonomous robotic surgery units will soon be technically possible, so it is time to figure out liability and responsibility when accidents happen.

The report points out the potential benefits: replacing human beings in dirty, mundane, or dangerous tasks, such as defusing bombs -- a task guided machines already perform. Driverless trucks could be a solution to the persistently high road fatality totals around the world, but they raise the question of who is responsible -- if anyone -- when an accident occurs, the author notes: "All technologies are liable to failure, and autonomous systems will be no exception (which is pertinent to the issue of whether autonomous systems should ever be created without manual override). Dealing with the outcomes of such failures will raise legal issues. If a person is killed by an autonomous system -- say, an unmanned vehicle -- who is responsible for that death? Does the law require that someone be held responsible? Legal and regulatory models based on systems with human operators may not transfer well to the governance of autonomous systems."

"Currently, road accidents, even fatal ones, attract only cursory investigation compared with air or rail accidents," the report's introduction states. "But as recording quality improves and costs go down will all accidents be carefully analysed? This raises legal and privacy issues: what would happen if most road accidents, currently insurance-classified as 'accidental,' were reliably blame-assigned? And how would we feel about our movements in our automated apartments being recorded and kept by a third party?"

The report says this is the probable timeline for such vehicles:

  • Driver information systems, including driver warning systems
  • Advanced driver assistance, including some automation of responses to warnings and also self-parking systems
  • Cooperative vehicle highway systems that allow information to be relayed between vehicles and from operators to vehicles, such as when cars are too close together, to avoid collisions
  • Automated highway, with the road and vehicles controlled as a system, rather than individual drivers making decisions about speeds, stopping distances, routes, etc.

Posted by Jerry Laws on Aug 21, 2009