By: Chris Gavrielidis
Cars of the future have been imagined in many creative ways. From the automated cars of iRobot that travel 200 miles per hour, to their sleek design in Minority Report as they ride on vertical surfaces, we have seen them in various shapes and sizes. But did we foresee this technology originating in cars like the Honda Accord? How about the Ford Explorer?
Not many cars are able to drive themselves just yet. (We’re waiting on the edge of our seatbelts, Google.) Nevertheless, we are seeing a rise in hi-tech cars that are changing how we view our rides. At first, it was simply a matter of convenience. Cars like the 2004 Honda Pilot began sporting back-up cameras. Newer Hondas have side-view cameras, effectively rendering the side-view mirror obsolete. Now, the latest Ford models come complete with lane watch technology, auto-adjusting cruise control systems, and—in some models—completely autonomous parallel parking. One of the obvious benefits to this technology is that it makes the roads just a little bit safer. While the bells and whistles can never fully compensate for grievous human error—driving drunk, for example, or simply being a terrible driver—they can provide us with some assurance that when our more benign mistakes occur, failing to check our blind spots will not result in hospital visits and higher insurance premiums.
But what happens when a driver reasonably relies on one of these new safety systems and it inexplicably fails? Imagine a camera malfunctioning at the wrong time, and in a moment of confusion, a now untrained eye jumps to the mirror a second too late to avoid a collision. While many drivers have yet to throw all their trust at these safety systems for precisely this reason, not all malfunctions are so simple. Consider that many of these hi-tech cars are no longer simply about the hardware. The steering wheel, for example, is no longer based on hydraulics, but on a system called electrically assisted power steering (EPS). In other words, it’s a video game controller. What happens when this system fails—when a wire snaps or a signal fails? The steering system is hardly the only concern. What happens when the brake pedal becomes as responsive as the campus wireless network? In short, there may be situations where drivers, at no fault of their own, lose control of their three-ton joysticks.
Some speculate that even when the age of the fully autonomous car comes along, the owner of the vehicle will still be liable in the event of a malfunction. Other theories suggest that it may be manufacturer error and thus fall under products liability. Finally, there is also the radical proposition that by granting personhood status to robots, the car itself may be held liable. (One may recall Commander Data, an android, who famously defended his own personhood in Star Trek: Next Generation.) Each perspective sheds some light on how tort law might react to today’s problems with hi-tech cars. For many issues like failed cameras, the driver may be liable. After all, would a reasonable, prudent driver fully trust these new technologies to the exclusion of the eye and the mirror? Though following this logic, a driver surely cannot be held liable when the entire braking system inexplicably fails. That is when the manufacturer will come to trial. Perhaps when the fully autonomous cars come along—when the artificial intelligence (AI) takes the wheel—we can expect some broader changes. But even then, there are issues to sort out. For instance, with who’s money will a liable AI compensate an injured party?
Disturbing evidence also shows that these hi-tech cars can easily be hacked. Recent news articles explain how hackers have been able to gain control of these vehicles and actually crash them in tests, like the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Believe it or not, this is a real concern and a fear for many car manufacturers—and an even bigger one for the consumers. For an actual accident caused by a malicious hacker, what is the remedy for the injured party, and who is to blame? Assuming the hacker cannot be found, perhaps the answer is the manufacturer. One would expect that the developers of these cars would ensure that there is no back-door access to these digital features. Surely, the safety of the consumer is the developer’s highest priority. Just as we expect safety recalls for defective tires, airbags, and braking systems, it is only logical to expect the same assurances for vulnerable car software as well.
Chris Gavrielidis is a Staff Member on the Journal of High Technology Law and a second year student at Suffolk Law. He enjoys playing the guitar and he drives a 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid, complete with a big red power button and side-view camera.