September 03, 2016

Horse 2159 - The Über Way To Avoid Responsibility

It seems that tax avoiding, entitlement avoiding and corporate pirates Über have been beaten to the punch when it comes to rolling out autonomous vehicles and finally doing away with meatbag people pilots for their cars. On the 1st of September, the company Newtopia began a service in Singapore of six autonomous vehicles which will operate as taxis.
The world's first self-driving taxis began picking up passengers in Singapore starting Thursday.
Select members of the public can hail a free ride through their smartphones in taxis operated by nuTonomy, an autonomous vehicle software startup. While multiple companies, including Google and Volvo, have been testing self-driving cars on public roads for several years, nuTonomy says is the first to offer rides to the public.
- New York Times, 25th Aug 2016

This comes ahead of Über's own plans in the city of Pittsburgh to launch their own autonomous taxi fleet of Volvo XC90s.
Uber Technologies Inc. will begin using self-driving taxis to ferry customers around Pittsburgh as soon as this month, a first for the industry in a race among automobile and technology companies to make driverless cars commercially available.
Uber’s service, using specially-equipped Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles and Ford Focus, would appear to be the first time that commuters could hail a ride in a driverless car. But while the effort signals a breakthrough in commercialization of the technology, it won’t be a brave new world of robot cars: Two Uber employees will be sitting in the front seat of each vehicle.
- Washington Post, 24th Aug 2016

Don't get me wrong, I am not some sort of technological Luddite who wants to return to a utopia which never existed. The steady rolling on of technology is as inevitable as the obvious outcome after a sledgehammer meets a stationary egg. My objection is the same as before when it comes to companies like Über, Lyft et al. in that I don't like freebooters who extract profits from the public without paying tax and contributing to the upkeep of the infrastructure which they derive those profits from. But now I have a new series of questions and objections and I don't think that anyone has been putting any thought into the outcome at all.
Imagine that it is the year 2030. A million houses have been put up and torn down and virtually every car which currently sits on the road will have been replaced. I'd wager that a considerable proportion of those cars will be autonomous and that they will be mostly indistinguishable from other cars which are driven by human pilots.
Question: if an autonomous car knocks over a pedestrian, then who is responsible?
Question: if an autonomous car knocks over and kills a pedestrian, then who is responsible?

I have been on trains which run autonomously and the experience is unremarkable. It might be a little weird to look out the front of a train which has no driver but the novelty wears off in about thirty seconds. It is probably already likely that I have also been on an international flight where the pilots have made zero input in flying the plane. Again, up the back of the aircraft in scum class where you don't even get to watch the telly without paying extra for it, you simply wouldn't know whether or not the plane was being flown by Mikhail and Johnathan or ZX-73647 and GK-18954. The biggest difference between trains, planes and automobiles is that automobiles do not run on specific routes and would need to drive on regular streets with other cars driven by erratic meatbag pilots and in an environment full of even more erratic meatbag pedestrians; especially small meatbag erratic pedestrians who haven't yet developed road sense.

Rules with regards motor vehicle accidents have reasonably well established protocols when it comes to apportioning blame. Usually it will be the car behind which is blamed for failing to avoid a collision, or a car which has changed lanes or turned through an intersection. The rules with regards a machine and a person on the road though, haven't as yet been thought about as far as I'm aware. Given that a company like Über already skives on any responsibility that it might have by placing their drivers on the hook for motor accidents (the "sharing economy" does a very poor job when it comes to actually sharing liability), they are likely to argue that autonomous vehicles can't be held responsible for unforeseeable circumstances which they will argue are caused by humans. If the human wasn't there and didn't run into the road, there wouldn't have been an accident.

I can already see companies like Über and Lyft objecting to the legal requirement that meatbag human drivers have to comply with when it comes to Third Party Injury Insurance. The objection would spring from the argument that people should already be aware that stepping into the street is dangerous and without a human in control of an autonomous vehicle that direct responsibility to be careful no longer exists. Of course, if you can actually prove that it was the machine's fault for failing to take action to avoid an accident, then good luck in trying to seek damages and sue because almost certainly there will be legal fictions in place, such that the total value of the company which owns an autonomous vehicle will be a peppercorn. A corporation is already an ingenious device for obtaining individual profits without individual responsibility; an autonomous vehicle owned by a ten cent corporation will be an ingenious device owned by an ingenious device for obtaining individual profits without individual responsibility.

There is of course the behemoth in the room; the one which pulls the peasants' plough, and that is the issue of large trucks and buses. Companies like Penske in the United States already have their hat in the ring when it comes to autonomous trucks and they have willing partners like Mercedes-Benz and General Motors who also want to sell them. A truck is obviously something of magnitudes in order of insurable interest and so haulage companies would want the question of who is at fault in an accident answered very quickly. With a thing that moves mostly from depot to depot and does so mainly at constant speed, the intelligence of the machine would be called into question less often. Nevertheless, those sorts of issues about who is at fault in an accident are still relevant.

My grand hope is that legislators think of meatbags more than machines of metal and wheels. In the race to throw out human pilots, which is exactly what the whole drive for autonomous vehicles is based upon, I hope that legislators think of the public instead of business owners who stand to gain the most from this new technology. In places like the mines in the Pilbara operated by Rio Tinto where there already is an existing employer/employee relationship and responsibility to provide a safe worksite at law, the use of autonomous vehicles and massive ones at that, are covered by workplace safety laws. I fear that companies like Über and Lyft who already want to abrogate any responsibility that they might have to the nation and the general public, would argue that a similar relationship does not apply to them.

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