Who is responsible for self-driving car accidents?

Current laws are not equipped to deal with accidents involving self-driving cars

A Smart Vision EQ FourTwo is displayed during preview of the 45th Tokyo Motor Show, on Oct 25, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

JAPAN • Technology for self-driving vehicles is developing rapidly.

The Japanese government aims to put unmanned self-driving vehicles into practical use under limited conditions by 2020. However, it has been pointed out that current laws are not equipped to deal with such situations as to where liability lies in accidents involving selfdriving cars.

"Fully self-driving cars would reduce traffic jams and accidents and could provide elderly people in depopulated areas with a means of transportation," the president of a Tokyo-based robotics company said last month, when a demonstration experiment involving an unmanned self-driving vehicle on public roads in Koto Ward was conducted.

The government has set a target for realising transport services using unmanned self-driving vehicles in limited areas, such as depopulated regions, by 2020 in its schedule for putting self-driving cars into use.

Since October, it has carried out proving tests on expressways and other places in cooperation with 21 entities including carmakers and universities.

At the Tokyo Motor Show in October last year, crowds gathered to see a display on "vehicles of the future," which included new technologies like an artificial intelligence (AI) system that warns drivers who appear to be falling asleep and a concept car that had no steering wheel, gas pedal or brake pedal.

If a fully self-driving vehicle being operated by an AI system was involved in an accident, who would be liable? Commissioned by the government to explore this question, Professor Koji Nakayama from the Meiji University Graduate School of Law, an expert on the Civil Procedure Code, organised a mock trial for an accident involving a self-driving car in January last year.

The Road Traffic Law states that a driver must reliably operate the steering wheel, brakes and other equipment to drive at a speed and in a manner that does not put other people in danger. However, the law was not designed to apply to AI systems.

In the mock trial, the hypothetical accident occurred when a bicycle suddenly pulled out in front of a self-driving car, which led the car to quickly change lanes. To avoid a collision with the car, a vehicle behind it swerved to the left and hit a utility pole, killing the driver.

The insurance company sued the carmaker, demanding part of the compensation for the driver's family. It insisted that the system was defective, saying it was not as safe as it should have been. The carmaker disputed this claim, arguing that changing lanes was the only option for preventing a collision with the other vehicle.

A discussion among three persons who played the role of judges, including an academic, could not conclude that the self-driving car was free from fault under the current rules and level of technology. They advised both sides to compromise rather than handing down a ruling.

"The purpose of the mock trial was to clarify the specific issues involved," Prof Nakayama said.

Dr Takeyoshi Imai, a professor of Penal Code at the Hosei University Graduate School of Law, said: "Regarding the issue of liability involving fully self-driving cars, there are some cases that would be difficult to address under the current laws. New legal measures are needed that clarify liability for AI."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2018, with the headline Who is responsible for self-driving car accidents?. Subscribe