The Tort Nightmare of Self-Driving Cars and AI


Self-Driving Cars, Thinking Machines Will Test Limits Of Tort Law

Self-driving cars, machines that teach themselves how to operate and home digital assistants that can enter into legally binding contracts are all either on the market now or soon will be. So the next question is: Whom do you sue when they run amok?

The genius of American tort law is its ability to adapt to new technology. But that adaptability will be sorely tested by the next wave of devices that can think for themselves and behave in ways that no human could have anticipated, panelists explained at the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform’s Emerging Technologies and Torts of the Future conference in Seattle April 18. The ILR owns Legal Newsline.

One of the fundamental principles of tort law is that humans are accountable for decisions that cause injuries to others, but who’s accountable for decisions made by machines?

“Something goes wrong, but there’s no perpetrator,” said Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington Law School who focuses on the intersection of tort law and technology, “because nobody intended this behavior.”

Imagine this appalling scenario, Calo said: Your self-driving hybrid vehicle is equipped with machine-learning technology that allows it to “teach” itself the most efficient way to operate, a priority set by the designers. And utilizing that amazing technology, it teaches itself to always start the day with a full battery.

One day, the car’s owners forget to plug it in for the night and the car decides it would be most efficient to run its gasoline motor to charge the batteries instead. Unfortunately, the car is in a garage and the family is asphyxiated. Who’s to blame? The vehicle manufacturer? The software provider? The car itself?

“These truly emergent properties are going to be very difficult for tort law to handle,” Calo said, “because tort law relies on proximate cause and the injury must be foreseeable for the defendant to be liable.”

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