Driverless Car Liability Non-Issue

First I was told driverless cars weren’t technically feasible in our lifetimes. Then I was told they would be too expensive to be practical. Then I was told it would be too regulated by government for anyone to make a profit. Now that every one of those hurdles was easily overcome or turned out to be groundless, the normally sensible Megan McArdle says driverless cars will be stopped by lawsuit liability, and then goes further and suggests the “fix” for that will be to require the driverless car to have someone behind the wheel, which will render the technology moot.

I call bullshit. I and others have heard these lawsuit liability arguments before and the answer is always the same: You don’t need the driver to be in the car. The solution is a regulatory environment (gasp! yes! we actually need those!) which makes the responsible party the owner of the vehicle, just like the owner of a horse or a dog or whatever is responsible for the actions of that animal whether the owner is present when the animal behaves inappropriately or not, or just like you’re responsible now if you forget your baby in a hot car and the baby suffocates. In this scenario the owner of the vehicle might then turn around and sue the automaker of course, but that’s happened in other industries and usually sorts itself out. As long as the direct liability follows the owner of the vehicle, or whoever last pressed the “go” button on it to send it off somewhere on the mission where the accident happened, the issue will sort itself. I predict this will be as much of an issue as all the other objections raised to it to date, i.e. a challenge not a massive insurmountable roadblock.

All it takes is that inconceivable thing that apparently libertarianoid/rightists can no longer imagine existing anywhere: a government policy that makes sense. One of the reasons I’ve become so skeptical of so many libertarian and/or right-ish economic thinkers is what I have begun to think of as the libertarian, “government can never, ever do anything right, ever, except maybe blow things up, and will always cause disaster no matter what it does” mentality. It’s become less a thoughtful position than a twitch in some corners, and I say that with all due respect to McArdle, who’s usually pretty damned sensible.

Yes, liberal/leftists have their own incredible array of petty hypocrisies, stupidities, and blind spots too. It’s called “being human” folks, and no matter where you sit on the political spectrum you’re going to have those.

Anyway, on the self-driving cars: First it was “oh they’ll never work.” Now that they indisputably do work, it was “the government won’t allow them on the road,” but now multiple states already do. Then it was “they’ll cost way too much money to make” but it turns out it won’t. Then it was “no one will trust them,” but tons of people are saying they’d love one, and multiple car companies, having researched the market, are promising to produce them–not just one company taking a risk, but the entire industry in multiple countries has researched it and believes consumers want them. The only remaining argument that seems to have any legs at all is “the liability costs will be sky high,” but the simple fix is, you make the operator responsible for the vehicle just like you do now, but define “operator” as “whoever turned it on and sent it off on the mission where it got in trouble.”

The only hitch will be if something goes drastically wrong and there’s a huge series of calamities, all at once, due to a design flaw. Which all the big car companies have gone through and managed to survive. Otherwise there’ll be a few settlements, most likely, and progress will continue, because these things will be safer than human drivers by far.

Driverless cars are coming. Period. As I said a few years ago, the only really interesting question left is when they start ratcheting up the requirements for human drivers to make it tougher to get a license, and then when they will start moving to outlaw human drivers entirely because it’s too unsafe and irresponsible to allow humans to drive on public roads anymore. I give that maybe 20 years before people begin thinking seriously about it.

  • Scott

    Dean,

    I think you’re (deliberately?) missing her point. The point of the child following a ball and the different reaction a driver vs. software would have is one where Ford and other car companies will face massive lawsuits. You might think you have the legal problems all wrapped-up and solved before hand but anyone whose seen the legal system work knows that isn’t the case.

    I’ve been coming here for a while and so I’m confident in saying that you hold a pro-statist view of law, policy and government: that it’ll work almost exactly as intended, and if there are problems they’ll be minor and pretty easily solved. We “llibertarianoid” (nice to have a “conversation” with a guy who says he’s fair-minded but always starts out by insulting your beliefs to your face) know that that isn’t the case; that it’s the rare law/policy/government “innovation” that doesn’t cause major problems and no law works even close to exactly as it should.

    I should write a program that replaces every one of your “libertarianoid” insults with “realist” or “pragmatist”. Because it’s that view you’re dismissing in a foam-specked, snarling sort of way.

    I still respect you, just not your bizarre hatred of libertarian beliefs.

  • http://www.deanesmay.com Dean Esmay

    Megan’s point about the car being confused between the child and the ball I considered so silly it wasn’t worth addressing directly. The solution for the car is the same: if something appears in front of you, avoid it, if two things appear, avoid them both. Which is exactly what human drivers do, and while inevitably a computer will fail and hit a person, it is no more likely (in fact, probably less likely) to get it wrong than most human drivers.

    Your presumption that I haven’t seen the legal system up close and personal is fascinating. What would lead you to believe I haven’t? In fact, what would lead you to believe I don’t actually have more experience with it than you do?

    If you’ve been coming here long enough you would know that “libertaranoid” is not an insult, and that I take all sorts of issue with all sorts of hypocrisies and blind spots among liberals and leftists. In fact I’m hated by many self-described liberals and leftists for that very thing. But if you don’t like my use of the word “libertarianoid,” which I use to describe most people who are of the lassez-faire mentality whether they be “socially conservative” or “socially liberal,” tell me what word you like. Because you know as well as I do there are a ton of extremely socially conservative people who share your economic views, and a ton of not particularly socially conservative people who do, and still others who consider themselves broadly libertarian but not ideologically so.

    I will not give you “realist” or “pragmatist” because I believe many (not all, many) libertarian and conservative ideas are not realistic and are not pragmatic. I can give you a list if you like. I feel the same about many liberal/socialist/whatever policies. Indeed, just on the subject of driverless cars, my libertarianish/rightish friends have been consistently unrealistic and wrong time and time again when it comes to this technology.

    The assertion that I believe all laws work out as intended is flat out false, and that’s demonstrated by the fact that I frequently point out laws that are broken and not working, including just the other day on the very front page of this blog (VAWA). It is absolutely a given that the law of unintended consequences follows all legislation.

    However, what I think you guys need to realize is that lack of legislation and regulation is also subject to the law of unintended consequences. In fact it was this realization that made me conclude I could no longer in good conscience self-describe as a libertarian, and I went back to “classical liberal,” i.e. an open-minded pragmatist on political matters.

    I have three challenges for you:

    1) Give me a word you won’t take offense at that describes all of you who are into the whole lassez-faire economics thing, that you won’t take offense to when I debate people in your camp. I don’t like “right wing” so what do you prefer?

    2) Tell me what exactly is wrong with my reasoning in this case without getting your nose out of shape because I said something vaguely critical of your economic philosophy.

    3) Will you acknowledge that lack of legislation or regulation is as subject to the law of unintended consequences as legislation and regulation are? Please answer “yes” or “no” before giving any further explanation.

  • Ruth H

    I just don’t get it. Why would I want a driverless car? If I don’t want to drive there are taxis, buses, and in some places trains and airplanes. I don’t get the reason for a driverless car. Is it my age? I have a 15 year old granddaughter who is eagerly awaiting being of age to get a driver’s license, a rite of passage for most teens, they don’t get it either.

  • Eric Rall

    Unlike a bus or a train, a driverless car goes where you want to go, when you want to go there, and it gives you your own space in which to do it.

    Unlike a taxi, you don’t need to pay the driver, and you don’t need to pay the monopoly rents for your city’s taxi medallion cartel.

    I see driverless cars as an additional feature for regular private autos. The advantages it gives you over driving your own car are:

    1. You don’t have to drive if you don’t want to. You can do something else to pass the time, like you could if you were taking mass transit, but you without giving up the advantages of a private auto.

    2. You can still get where you’re going (or more importantly, get back when you’ve already taking your car there and need to get both yourself and your car back home) if you’re tired, sick, drunk, or otherwise not able to operate a car safely.

    3. Once the control software reaches a certain maturity point (we may be there already, and if we’re not we’re probably pretty close), driverless cars will be safer than human-operated cars. The control system can “see” in all directions at once, can have near-instant reaction time, and is never going to get distracted or zone out.

  • Eric Rall

    For Dean’s questions:

    1. “Libertarian” is fine. “Free-marketer” is fine. “Libertarianoid” comes across as a bit mocking, even if that’s not how you intended it. “Market-uber-alles” (which you didn’t use here but have used in the past) is downright insulting and is arguably a Godwin’s Law offense.

    2. I don’t disagree with you much in this particular case. A new technology has arisen, the current regulatory regime doesn’t fit it well in a few respects, and so the regulatory regime needs to be patched. I do see this as a problem with the old regulatory regime (the need for legislatures and regulatory agencies to keep updating the rules to avoid accidentally overly-obstructing private-sector is one of the major costs of strong and complex regulation), but not in this case an insurmountable problem.

    3. No. Legislative and regulatory inaction can have unintended consequences, but doing something (especially if we’re talking about adding new rules entirely rather than patching new rules to mitigate a newly-discovered unintended consequence) is generally riskier. The simpler the rules are, the more stable the rules are, and the more predictable the rules are, the better people are at making them work despite their flaws.

  • Elizabeth Reid

    I really hope this works out. One of my kids probably won’t have enough vision to drive, and it would be really terrific if that didn’t mean always relying on another human for transportation.

  • http://madisonforum.net/ Sandi

    Indeed, just on the subject of driverless cars, my libertarianish/rightish friends have been consistently unrealistic and wrong time and time again when it comes to this technology.

    I am about as conservative as anyone who posts here, but don’t disagree with you on this post. While I will never be able to afford a new car of any kind ( I’m 72 now and live on SS ), if I could I would buy a self-driving car.

    Although I love to drive, there would be times on a long drive that it would be nice to just turn control over to the car and take a nap. I would trust it completely.

    …went back to “classical liberal,” i.e. an open-minded pragmatist on political matters.

    I have been coming to this blog since 2004, and you may have been “classic liberal” then and for years after, but you are well into “progressive liberal” now. Yes I have heard you say your political views haven’t changed, but if so you hid a lot in the early “classical” years.

  • http://www.jerrykindall.com/ Jerry Kindall

    Reasons you want driverless cars:

    1. Tens of thousands of auto-related deaths prevented each year. Hundreds of thousands of auto-related injuries prevented each year.
    2. You never need to look for a parking space. Your car drops you off, parks itself, and picks you up.
    3. You have the option of not owning a car. Why own a car when you only use it a couple hours a day? Rent it by the hour instead. Pay less when you volunteer to carpool with others going the same direction at about the same time.
    4. If you decide not to own a car, you don’t need a garage. This will change a lot about residential architecture.
    5. Electric cars become practical. You don’t need to worry about keeping it charged; the car will charge somewhere else. If you are driving a long distance, you simply change cars when you run out of range (a fully-charged car will be waiting for you).
    6. Less time spent in traffic because self-driving cars can safely drive closer together and at higher speeds. You will never have a backup where two lanes merge. And the time you do spend in traffic can be spent reading, watching a movie, working, or even sleeping. (This makes overnight drives to other cities practical.)
    7. Cars going to the same general area can join up, form a train, and improve fuel economy. In fact you could ride in an engineless “pod” which will give you a private cabin on such a “train” of any length (then transfer to another car when you get close to your destination).
    8. The design of vehicles can be changed radically when there is no need for a driver to control the vehicle. For example, a family vehicle might have the passengers seated around a table. Vehicles can be made lighter and simpler when a car can successfully avoid accidents rather than treating them as inevitabilities from which passengers must be protected.

    Plus lots of other things that are beyond my imagination.

  • http://www.jerrykindall.com/ Jerry Kindall

    Oh yeah.

    9. Parents don’t have to play chauffeur to their kids. Kids have soccer practice? No problem, there’ll be a car to take them home. This will free up enormous amounts of parental time.

  • http://www.deanesmay.com Dean Esmay

    Eric: OK, “libertarianoid” may seem snotty I guess. How’s “libertarianish?”

    There really are people calling themselves libertarians for whom I think “market uber alles” is the only descriptive term they deserve; the hard core Objectivists are like that, for example. I’ve literally met such people. They may be a minority but they’re there. I also do see a general encroachment of the mentality that the market -always- fixes -everything- in generally conservative circles, and it’s become irksome to me, but I’m trying hard not to be too nasty about it.

    Sandi: Well let’s see, from the beginning of this blog I was very open about supporting gay marriage/civil unions, about wanting there to be a national system that gave some form of medical insurance to every citizen, favored a robust foreign policy that strongly opposed fascism and dictatorships, and more. The only shift I can see is that I have become more and more criticial of national and multinational corporations as I have come to realize these are non-natural entities. I’m also more skeptical of the so-called “flat tax” than I used to be. So I guess that’s a leftward shift of sorts. My admiration for the entrepreneur and the family business has increased with my skepticism of big business, however. I see big corporations as an encroachment on the market, not a natural outgrowth of it.

    I don’t know, though, I tend to think it’s more a shift in priorities on what I voted on. I used to tell people regularly I was nowhere near as “right wing” as they seemed to assume I was just because I was (and am) a hawk.

    Joe Lieberman/Bob Kerrey Democrat, John McCain/Colin Powell Republican, that’s basically me in a nutshell (although McCain seems to have turned pretty cranky in recent years, moreso than I like).

  • http://madisonforum.net/ Sandi

    “Sandi: Well let’s see, from the beginning of this blog I was very open about supporting gay marriage/civil unions, about wanting there to be a national system that gave some form of medical insurance to every citizen, favored a robust foreign policy that strongly opposed fascism and dictatorships, and more.”

    The only part of that that is progressive is the medical assistance for everyone. The rest of those points I agree with and hold as, as some call me, ultra conservative.

    I guess you could call me a fiscal conservative. The rest of the issues I am not very much into at all. If it doesn’t cost tax dollars or freedom, I have no problems. The mentality is becoming more and more what can the government do for me.

  • Eric Rall

    “Libertarianish” is fine.

  • http://www.jaeddy.com John Eddy

    I have to agree with Dean. I read Megan’s article and it just seems to me people are unaware of just how mature sensor and short-range wireless technology really is. In the bouncing ball scenario the oncoming vehicles would be in communication with each other, both would have radar, infrared and motion detection in place and they would coordinate their response- and if they failed in that regard the fault would be with the idiot programmer or Code QA person who never anticipated such a common scenario.

    My point is that the technology to deal with these issues already exists and it’s bloody cheap, to the point where redundancy can be built in without generating exorbitant cost. Will somebody sue? Of course they will, but a regulatory scheme that defines liability places the same risk/reward matrix on that choice as currently exists.

    In a human driver scenario if the driver was unable to avoid the child due to a manufacturing defect in the vehicle, guess where the lawsuit goes?

    • http://www.deanesmay.com Dean Esmay

      Ford had a model called the Pinto that occasionally would explode. 27 people were killed by Pintos that just went up in flames from hitting a bump, and quite a few sustained crippling 3rd degree burn injuries.

      I notice Ford’s still making cars.

      The libertarianish (thanks Eric, I’ll use that from now on) mindset which says “it can’t happen lawyers will destroy everything” sometimes boggles me. Yes, they destroy a lot. They also defend a lot. But it makes me wonder how some people think they can have simple answers of “less government” that don’t just involve putting more things into the hands of judges and, hence, lawyers. If you don’t have legislation and/or a regulatory body, you’re eventually gonna have a judge settling things for you. This is a net plus? That would be one of the prime reasons I’m skeptical anymore of the instant “we should have smaller government” philosophy, because I do not see how you do that without actually making judges more powerful.

  • Scott

    Sorry for my late response, busy with life.

    1) Give me a word you won’t take offense at that describes all of you who are into the whole lassez-faire economics thing, that you won’t take offense to when I debate people in your camp. I don’t like “right wing” so what do you prefer?

    “Libertarianish” or “Classical Liberalish” would be better.

    2) Tell me what exactly is wrong with my reasoning in this case without getting your nose out of shape because I said something vaguely critical of your economic philosophy.

    I think you’re too optimistic about all the various problems and roadblocks that will naturally spring up, will be thrown up by busy-body bureaucrats, will be thrown up by corporations who have something to lose by the change in tech using government for their own interests(which is the source of so many regulations the left loves), etc.

    It’s new tech and there will be people who will fight against it. I welcome it but I’m a realist.

    3) Will you acknowledge that lack of legislation or regulation is as subject to the law of unintended consequences as legislation and regulation are? Please answer “yes” or “no” before giving any further explanation.

    No, but I will recognize that sometimes regulation, public agencies and legislation is required. I’m not a Stossel-head but I do agree with his pointing out that that the EPA and environmental regulations have helped clean up many waterways. But, I also agree with him that most regulations and public agencies far outlive their original intent and usefulness.

    Can you admit that, Dean?

  • thomasR

    Driverless cars are so coming — they’ll be safer as well as cheaper and more fun to travel in, I’m guessing. More efficient, too, since they can be slaved into convoys. Combine with exclusive, human-free tunnels connected to the existing road network and one has a growing fast freight system delivering from warehouse to doorstep.

    There’ll be regulatory hurdles OFC, but driverless cars will only have to reach a tipping point in *one* country or state for the global spread to occur.

    It’s worth noting that free markets don’t solve problems, they’re a *mechanism* for solving problems — a mechanism which works primarily by weeding out failures. Someone still has to do the work. And unless someone works out a way to prevent mature, successful companies from being taken over by the greedy and ambitious, I guess there will always be regulators around.