“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race….It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”

– Professor Stephen Hawking, December 2014

With the staggering number of motor vehicle accidents that occur on our roads each year, we have almost become desensitized to the news headlines reporting injuries or deaths on the road. However, one particular accident has sparked conversation and alarm around the globe.

On 20 March, 2018, a self-driving car owned by Uber killed a 49 year old pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. The self-driving SUV was flipped on its side after the collision (pictured below). A tragic moment-in-history: the first computer-driven motor vehicle accident causing the death of a human.

Putting control into the hands of artificial intelligence can be distressing and at first instance may cause us to conjure up images of AI turning against us to ultimately proceed to take over the world as we know it – as predicted by many of our favourite sci-fi films (Terminator, anyone?). Yet the benefits of self-driving vehicles in terms of improving road safety should not be overlooked. Naturally, even robocars can be expected to make errors from time to time yet in the long run, there is likely to be far fewer motor vehicle accidents by eliminating human error from the equation.

Furthermore, a closer look at the circumstances of this particular accident reveals that the pedestrian may have been attempting to dangerously cross the street and so might have placed themselves in danger.

Separate from the general safety issues, a number of legal questions are posed by the introduction of self-driving cars. It raises the question: who can be held legally responsible for an accident when no one is at the wheel?

If self-driving cars become more prominent and relied upon within our society, an overhaul of our current injury compensation system may be required. Currently, a large pool of money is created by the payment of annual vehicle registration (CTP insurance), and the pool is available to financially support people injured in motor vehicle accidents. The entitlement to compensation for injuries is triggered by the demonstration of fault by the driver of a motor vehicle.

The CTP insurance scheme may need to be modified to account for the fact that perhaps the manufacturer of the particular robocar involved may need to be held accountable for the damage and injuries resulting from the accident. Perhaps there will be a need to retrain all drivers before allowing them to use a self-driving vehicle and in such a scenario the “vehicle supervisor” at the time of the accident could be held responsible for any accident.

In any case, the death resulting from the self-driving Uber vehicle will no doubt create a push for creation of clearer liability laws surrounding driverless vehicles which will be critical if we are to move towards accepting self-driving vehicles into our lives.

Australia is currently taking a “wait and watch” approach to self-driving vehicles and we are maintaining our “human-first” stance.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus not only on making our AI better and more successful, but also on the benefit of humanity.”

– Professor Stephen Hawking, November 2017

Authored by Emma O’Bree, Lawyer at MBA Lawyers