Sparesbox Blog

Who's Responsible For A Self-Driving Car?

By Mitch Babbs

Wed Dec 11 2019

There are all kinds of drivers on the road, and all kinds of reasons to drive. For some it’s about getting out on the open road, feeling the tonne of machinery at your fingertips react to provocation, getting a sense of real freedom and agency that you can only get from sitting behind the wheel of your pride and joy.

Then, for others, driving is a purely utilitarian experience, one that exists solely to get you (and sundry other occupants or belongings) from point A to point B. Now, despite that not being the case for plenty of drivers, this group does represent a large portion of people on the road on any given day.

So it’s no surprise then that Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) are poised to relieve many drivers from the monotonous stop-start experience of city driving, whether it’s the commute to the office or getting stuck in traffic on some partially constructed highway. But for the people out there imagining a robot chauffeur, the future is still a bit further off than just around the corner.

Even without taking into account the current shortfalls in technology, a massive roadblock for AVs making inroads to the Australian market rests on the current legal framework around them. Up until now, each state has approached regulation individually, with state-specific laws applying to New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

Australia isn’t the only country in the world lacking a national standard for AV laws—take the US for example. The vast majority of states have differing laws, largely depending on the influence of big tech companies within their domain putting pressure on state legislature. 

Arizona, one such state with ‘light touch’ laws (another word for loose regulation) recently got into the news for all the wrong reasons when an Uber Autonomous Vehicle struck and killed a 49-year-old cyclist. Despite the vehicle being ‘monitored’ by a test driver—there’s in-vehicle footage of the driver reportedly watching an episode of The Voice at the time of the accident—there are already fingers being pointed at the cyclist for ‘crossing the road away from a cross-walk’. 

The question is, would the same blame be levelled at the victim if this accident didn’t happen in a place where responsibility and liability were clear? And leave out the fact that the driver was meant to be monitoring the vehicle at all times, would this have happened at all if the driver were paying attention, less confident and assured that the car would do all the driving for them? 

NSW law is at least one step ahead of these loose regulations, putting the responsibility for an accident in the lap of whoever is sitting in the driver’s seat. With a new national legal framework set to come into force in 2020, Australia appears to be maintaining human-centric orientation when it comes to Autonomous Vehicles, for the time being at least. But with Australian democracy’s recent downgrade, we need to be careful to resist the influence of external factors on good, common-sense laws.