As Autonomous Cars Evolve, Can Man-Made Laws Keep Up?

By: Bridget Clerkin May 8, 2018
Audi's A8 concept car is one of the first road-ready vehicles stocked with onboard autonomous technology. As self-driving cars become more of a norm, the legal landscape around them will shift from theoretical to practical.
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(Ed.’s note: This is the first in a series of five articles on the future of the legal issues surrounding autonomous vehicles. Future articles in the series will be linked below as they are published.)

Historians argue that we can glimpse where we’re going if we only look back at where we’ve been. But like nearly everything else Silicon Valley has touched, that age-old wisdom has been turned on its head.

Even as it helps rewrite legal history, the futuristic pursuit of autonomous cars could give humanity the chance to peek its own origins.

The Theory of Evolution is already in play in research labs across the auto and tech worlds, with engineers developing the artificial intelligence needed to drive the cars borrowing their blueprints from the original vessel for intellectual growth: the human mind.

Rather than relying on a pre-programmed path to dictate their actions, the autos will utilize electronic channels not unlike the neuropathways found in the brain, which will let the vehicles “recall” past incidents and “choose” for themselves how best to proceed. As the cars “see” and “experience” more of the road—and the world—their “intelligence” continues to grow and adapt.

Such astonishing capabilities have catalyzed the technology’s booming growth— the biggest speed bump endangering that pace is the cars’ simple lack of previous practice. In the realm of autonomous evolution, most self-driving autos have essentially matured into teenagers—capable of handling some responsibilities on the road but still too undeveloped for others.

Unfortunately, like their flesh-and-blood teenaged peers, the vehicles have made some fatal mistakes along that learning curve. March proved especially grisly for autonomous cars, as two people perished at the hands of the still-adapting technology in a matter of days, through incidents where errors in judgement—or no judgement at all—were displayed.

Still, the law has not evolved in tandem with the machines, the heavy burdens of reason and justice hindering its capability to keep up.

A pair of regulatory bills that once showed promise in Congress have been hampered by unanswered questions and ethical concerns about the vehicles’ security and safety. States have rushed to fill that power vacuum with their own myriad rules dictating the technology’s use on their roads, but none touch on the legal fallout of such deadly incidents—or any roadway incident involving a self-driving car.

And the opportunity to begin filling that void through case law was lost in the wake of the recent fatal accidents, with Uber—whose autonomous vehicle struck and killed an Arizona woman as she crossed the street—quickly settling out of court with the victim’s family.

With the incentives to bring driver-free autos to market still sky-high, and powerful companies across the globe all feverishly racing to get there first, the streets will only see more of the vehicles, and it’s clear that society will have to establish some sort of rules regarding future run-ins with the computerized cars.

But in order to do so, several major questions still need to be answered: Can existing laws be stretched to encompass such incidents—or is an entirely new body of law required to handle them? And whose fault is it, really, when a machine expressly built to think for itself makes a mistake on the road?

If the automakers get their way, none of this may matter soon. The only logical endpoint of the technology is an intelligence so perfectly complete it would truly transcend any need for man-made law.

Referred to in the tech world as “The Singularity,” the idea marks an imagined future point at which artificial intelligence will acquire new knowledge so quickly that it will essentially know all, assuming the omniscience of more traditional deities.

Still, the conception of such an entity would mean the consolidation of much more than the world’s information: the moment would mark both mankind’s crowning achievement and peak in relevance; the idea of man as both creator of and subject to this artificial life form; and the simultaneous end of a technological evolution, and beginning of a new era ruled by a digital god.

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