Justice in the Age of Automation

When an autonomous vehicle takes a life, questions of culpability ignite a firestorm

Ritesh Sharma

Ritesh Sharma I Law Consultant & Social Entrepreneur

In an era dominated by technological advancements, the very concept of justice finds itself at the crossroads of innovation. The rise of autonomous vehicles has thrust us into a new frontier, where questions of culpability in the event of tragic accidents spark intense debates.

As explored in the recently released comedy web series ‘OK Computer,’ the ethical and social implications of artificial intelligence come to the forefront. The series humorously delves into a murder investigation involving a self-driving car, prompting us to ponder the real-world implications. Who is responsible, and how does justice prevail in a scenario where no human is directly involved?

In the wake of an autonomous vehicle causing harm, the crucial question arises, who should bear the blame? With machines gaining increasing intelligence, it’s only a matter of time before they become independent decision-makers, raising complex issues around responsibility and accountability.

While the proponents of self-driving cars argue that they can reduce human error and save lives, the reality is not so simple. There have been several incidents of accidents where automated cars have taken lives, raising questions about their reliability and accountability.

In October 2023, a pedestrian was critically injured and trapped underneath a Cruise self-driving car in San Francisco that failed to detect him. In another incident in 2018, a driver was killed when his Tesla Model S, operating on Autopilot mode, collided with a concrete barrier on a highway. The same year, a woman named Elaine Herzberg was fatally struck by a self-driving Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona, that did not break or alert the human backup driver. In 2017, a driver died when his Tesla Model X, also on Autopilot mode, crashed into a highway divider.

Furthermore, a US federal agency reported in June 2022 that there were nearly 400 crashes involving vehicles with partially automated driver-assist systems over a 10-month period, including 273 involving Teslas.

These incidents highlight the ongoing challenges and debates surrounding the safety and regulation of autonomous vehicles. It’s important to note that while these technologies have the potential to greatly improve road safety, they are still in development and must be used responsibly.

From a legal standpoint, the issue of culpability in the case of autonomous vehicles is complex. Current laws are primarily designed around the assumption that a human driver is in control of the vehicle. However, in the case of autonomous vehicles, this assumption no longer holds. Some legal scholars argue that the manufacturer or the software developer should be held responsible since they are the creators of the autonomous system. Others suggest that the vehicle itself could be treated as an independent entity subject to legal action, a concept known as “artificial personhood.”

From an ethical perspective, the issue becomes even more complicated. If we hold the manufacturer or software developer responsible, we are essentially blaming them for a decision made by an artificial intelligence system. But can we really attribute moral agency to a machine. On the other hand, if we treat the autonomous vehicle as an independent entity, we are attributing it with a level of consciousness and intentionality that it does not possess. This raises profound questions about the nature of consciousness and the definition of a “moral agent.”

In the realm of autonomous vehicles, numerous nations have either implemented laws or are in the process of drafting regulations. The United Kingdom is leading the charge in legislating self-driving cars. The Automated and Electric Vehicles Act was enacted in 2018, stipulating that the vehicle’s owner is responsible for any accidents caused by an automated car. In 2022, a joint report from the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission proposed the creation of a new Automated Vehicles Act to regulate vehicles equipped with automated driving systems (ADS). This proposed legislation aims to clarify user liability, define the safety standards for legal self-driving, and establish a regulatory scheme to ensure the ongoing safety of these vehicles.

Similarly, in the United States, since 2012, 41 states and the District of Columbia have contemplated legislation related to autonomous vehicles, with 29 states, including D.C., enacting such legislation.

These instances underscore the worldwide initiatives to tackle the legal and safety challenges posed by autonomous vehicles. As technological advancements continue, it is anticipated that an increasing number of countries will formulate specific laws and regulations for autonomous vehicles.

While there are no specific instances of accidents involving autonomous vehicles in India, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the country is still in the nascent stages of introducing these vehicles. The primary concern at this point isn’t about the suitability of self-driving cars for Indian roads, but rather if the Indian legal system is equipped to handle issues related to these vehicles. The traffic situation in India is notably intricate due to factors like non-compliance with traffic regulations and occasional animal interference on the roads. These elements could present substantial obstacles for autonomous vehicles. However, despite these hurdles, experts are optimistic that self-driving cars could drastically decrease the rate of car accidents.

In terms of legislation, the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988 currently governs motor vehicles in India. This act was initially designed with human-driven vehicles in mind, leading to ongoing discussions about how it can be adapted to include autonomous vehicles.

Justice in the age of automation is a complex and multifaceted issue. As technology continues to advance, our legal and ethical frameworks will need to evolve to keep pace. The debate around the culpability of autonomous vehicles is just the beginning of a much larger conversation about justice, responsibility, and morality in an increasingly automated world.

In the wake of an autonomous vehicle causing harm, the crucial question is, who should bear the blame? With machines gaining increasing intelligence, it’s only a matter of time before they become independent decision-makers, raising complex issues around responsibility and accountability. As we navigate in this new automated world, the pursuit of justice remains our guiding principle.

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