A Technology Oriented Approach to Regulating Self-Driving Vehicles

By: Gadi Perl

Extensive discourse exists regarding the difficulties of adapting laws and regulations to cope with the speed of changing technologies. Views range from those who think that trying to constantly adapt our laws is a lost-cause and an impossible mission, to those who believe that the effect of new technologies is not that different from the effect of the industrial revolution and that our traditional legal systems will prevail.  

Within this larger discourse, we have autonomous vehicles which are an interesting test case for the ability of existing legal regimes to adapt to a disruptive technologies.

Autonomous vehicles are no longer science fiction. Driverless vehicles are being tested and perfected throughout roads in the USA, Europe, China and Israel. A commercial model is predicted to be available to the public within the next four years.
The development of autonomous vehicles utilizes a captivating new technology with the potential to change the way we go about our daily lives. Safer and more efficient driving conducted by sophisticated artificial intelligence based algorithms will transform our streets and even our homes. Fewer accidents will mean a reduction in insurance costs, a drop in medical expenses and less need for redundancy in public roads to compensate for accidents or human error. Efficient driving means lower fuel consumption, less pollution, congestion and mechanical failure. Driverless cars mean no professional drivers and even no need for parking areas within cities. The possibilities are vast.

From a legal perspective, autonomous cars present a multi-faceted complex issue, requiring simultaneous solutions for issues such as privacy, autonomy, tort law, labor laws and many more legal fields.

There is no clear legal answer regarding the implications of algorithms replacing humans in a specific incident involving life and death. While human react instinctively rushed with adrenalin, robots will have to be pre-programmed to decide what is worse, hitting a young boy or an elderly man. Not only is computer based decision making rises an ethical issue it is also a legal problem with ramifications not only for constitutional rights, but also for practical liability rules and tort law.

Moreover, the technology included in autonomous cars will impact privacy in numerous ways. A database will document where your car is and therefore where you are, with the ability to predict where you intend to go. Cameras mounted on machines, constantly surveying the surroundings, will have a huge impact on the privacy of all who occupy the public domain.

These are just few examples of the legal challenges of this new technology.

In my study I offer a novel methodological approach aimed at creating a regulatory system which is simultaneously comprehensive and also flexible enough to quickly adapt to changing technology. I suggest that legal scholars first attempt to understand the underlying technology behind autonomous vehicles, and only then work towards finding legal and regulatory solutions.

Specifically to autonomous vehicles – I suggest that instead of looking at autonomous vehicles as "black boxes" and only through the prism of what they can do, we categorize the autonomous technologies into 4 different categories – the mechanical vehicle, the sensor array, the self-driving algorithms and finally the connectivity technologies. After understanding the purpose of each category and how it works, I try to find regulatory mechanisms which provide adequate solutions to the challenges created by each technology. I suggest that this mechanism minimizes lacunae and is easily adaptable as technology changes.