Robots Behind the Wheel

August 17th, 2018

Nikola Tesla made the prediction in the quote above in the last century. Perhaps now it might be more accurate replace slave labor with manual labor, but the point remains the same.

Well, it’s the twenty-first century, but we’re not quite to the point where robot’s labor is doing most of the work. But we seem to be on the way. And the company named after Tesla, Tesla Motors, is a pioneer in replacing labor in part of that. But with every pioneering venture, some things are venturing into parts unknown.

A big unknown is who is going to be responsible when the robot behind the wheel screws up and kills someone? It’s already happened – more than once. In March a Tesla on “Autopilot” failed to stop and crashed into a firetruck stopped on a highway, killing the “driver” of the car.

Tesla claims their Autopilot feature is a driver assistant tool, not a driver replacement. The human driver needs to be ready to take over if needed. According to the vehicles records, the human was warned at several times to pay more attention to what the vehicle was doing and to put human hands back on the steering wheel.

So who will be responsible? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administation (NHTSA) investigated a Tesla autopilot fatality from last year and found that the Tesla’s system was operating as intended. Furthermore, it noted that cars with the “Autopilot” feature were involved in crashes 40% less than average. On the other hand, the National Transportation Safety Board said that Tesla should bear part of the blame for putting out a system that was so easy to misuse.

So who is responsible for a robot’s behavior when it does something wrong? The owner is responsible when a dog misbehaves. But a dog is capable of its own independent judgement without human assistance. And we hardly trust a dog, no matter how well trained, with the judgement to guide a vehicle moving at 60 mph and weighing over 1000 pounds. The issue of liability comes down to control. But do you have a responsibility to control your vehicle? Or are you at the whim of the software? And we’re not even considering whether your robot has been hacked at this stage. Will liability be determined by the autonomy level of the vehicle?

So the robots are not ready to take over quite yet.

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