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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

The struggle of morality in forging and enforcing autonomous vehicle laws

The automotive industry has been through many an evolution throughout its time. Whether it is the innovation of the latest luxury sports car, or the rise of the electric vehicle (or any other manner of events in between), this is an industry that continues to hold its footing in a world where many other sectors are losing theirs. Now, the latest evolution in the history of automotives is the introduction of the autonomous vehicle. While whispers of these vehicles being in testing already have been circulating for a few years now, we are now reaching the point where whispers are turning into impassioned cries of both enthusiasm and concern. Enthusiasm, because the beginnings of the autonomous vehicle also mark the beginning of a whole new frontier in automotives. Concern, because of the legal implications surrounding possible situations concerning these autonomous vehicles. Both approaches to the development of the autonomous vehicle make sense, and both them have their points to make and to be understood. So, which approach should we be listening more closely to?

The rise of the autonomous vehicle is something that we have been excitedly watching come to vibrant life over the last few years. Currently in testing are several models yet to make it to the mainstream market. Each of these models presents its own strengths and weaknesses, and each model adds fuel to the moral fire that is brewing. Car manufacturers like Tesla (the same company who pioneered the movement towards electric vehicles) are driving forward this revolution, and it is a revolution that is gaining more and more traction all the time. But, as with any innovation, there are the legal questions everyone is asking. And this is an area where these questions matter most, what with I literally being a matter of life and death, and how each process is carried out and understood. In short, all these legal queries boil down to one ultimate question: in the event of a traffic incident where the autonomous vehicle is the cause, is the driver to be held morally and legally responsible? And further, should they be?

The automotive industry is one of the most long-lasting, intriguing industries in the world.

Governments around the world are currently struggling with shaping, reconfiguring, or creating anew the auto laws that surround autonomous vehicles. It is something that many of us do not think of often, and yet it is something that is both profoundly important and inherently unanswered. The biggest and most obvious question on everyone’s lips is if the vehicle is in dominant (if not complete) control, if it is involved in an accident, is that incident the fault of the person in the front seat, even though the vehicle is controlling and driving itself? This is a question that is plaguing the legal systems currently trying to outline what the surrounding auto laws will be when these autonomous vehicles become available on the mainstream market. The facts are simple. The convenience and efficiency of automotive transportation has not yet peaked, but this is only the beginning of a long and confusing journey to firmly establishing the legal boundaries surrounding autonomous vehicles.

There are a lot of opinions on if the “driver” is accountable, or if the vehicle – an object and not a naturally conscious being – is the guilty party. Of course, if the auto laws were written that any traffic incidents where an autonomous vehicle was the cause are not the fault of the driver, then there comes the risk of miscarriages of justice and legal imbalances that, if left unchecked, can and possibly will lead to a fractured auto law framework when it comes to these vehicles. Autonomous vehicles sound like a dream, but they come with a complex web of configurations. Perhaps the solution is easy, and maybe it is not. It may be as simple as hiring the best auto lawyers to bring the case to the legal courts, or it could be as complex as judging each case before the legal counsel individually, to figure out just how much control the individual in the driver’s seat had, versus how much the vehicle had, and the circumstances and severity of the traffic incident. Whichever way you approach it, it is a complex and unique

This is a sector that has given rise to the convenient and efficient modes of travel that we are now so accustomed to, so familiar with. It is the same industry that has made fast travel by air, sea, and land possible – and has elevated it time and again. And now, this is the field that has made the autonomous vehicle a sparkling reality. And while this latest development is one to be celebrated for sure, it is also one to be cautioned. The legalities surrounding issues in traffic are straightforward enough, but when an autonomous vehicle is part of the incident, all bets are off. Suddenly, we are unsure what the auto laws surrounding autonomous vehicles should be. Should they remain the same as traditional automotive laws? Or, given the unique nature of the vehicles at hand, should they be given an entirely new set of auto laws to be followed? This is the question on everybody’s lips, and it is the question that legal systems the world over are still grappling with themselves. It is likely that as the experimentation with autonomous vehicles continues, the answer will present itself, but until then, it is mere speculation, educated guesswork at best. Only time will tell.

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