Driverless Car Liability Non-Issue

First I was told driverless cars weren’t technically feasible in our lifetimes. Then I was told they would be too expensive to be practical. Then I was told it would be too regulated by government for anyone to make a profit. Now that every one of those hurdles was easily overcome or turned out to be groundless, the normally sensible Megan McArdle says driverless cars will be stopped by lawsuit liability, and then goes further and suggests the “fix” for that will be to require the driverless car to have someone behind the wheel, which will render the technology moot.

I call bullshit. I and others have heard these lawsuit liability arguments before and the answer is always the same: You don’t need the driver to be in the car. The solution is a regulatory environment (gasp! yes! we actually need those!) which makes the responsible party the owner of the vehicle, just like the owner of a horse or a dog or whatever is responsible for the actions of that animal whether the owner is present when the animal behaves inappropriately or not, or just like you’re responsible now if you forget your baby in a hot car and the baby suffocates. In this scenario the owner of the vehicle might then turn around and sue the automaker of course, but that’s happened in other industries and usually sorts itself out. As long as the direct liability follows the owner of the vehicle, or whoever last pressed the “go” button on it to send it off somewhere on the mission where the accident happened, the issue will sort itself. I predict this will be as much of an issue as all the other objections raised to it to date, i.e. a challenge not a massive insurmountable roadblock.

All it takes is that inconceivable thing that apparently libertarianoid/rightists can no longer imagine existing anywhere: a government policy that makes sense. One of the reasons I’ve become so skeptical of so many libertarian and/or right-ish economic thinkers is what I have begun to think of as the libertarian, “government can never, ever do anything right, ever, except maybe blow things up, and will always cause disaster no matter what it does” mentality. It’s become less a thoughtful position than a twitch in some corners, and I say that with all due respect to McArdle, who’s usually pretty damned sensible.

Yes, liberal/leftists have their own incredible array of petty hypocrisies, stupidities, and blind spots too. It’s called “being human” folks, and no matter where you sit on the political spectrum you’re going to have those.

Anyway, on the self-driving cars: First it was “oh they’ll never work.” Now that they indisputably do work, it was “the government won’t allow them on the road,” but now multiple states already do. Then it was “they’ll cost way too much money to make” but it turns out it won’t. Then it was “no one will trust them,” but tons of people are saying they’d love one, and multiple car companies, having researched the market, are promising to produce them–not just one company taking a risk, but the entire industry in multiple countries has researched it and believes consumers want them. The only remaining argument that seems to have any legs at all is “the liability costs will be sky high,” but the simple fix is, you make the operator responsible for the vehicle just like you do now, but define “operator” as “whoever turned it on and sent it off on the mission where it got in trouble.”

The only hitch will be if something goes drastically wrong and there’s a huge series of calamities, all at once, due to a design flaw. Which all the big car companies have gone through and managed to survive. Otherwise there’ll be a few settlements, most likely, and progress will continue, because these things will be safer than human drivers by far.

Driverless cars are coming. Period. As I said a few years ago, the only really interesting question left is when they start ratcheting up the requirements for human drivers to make it tougher to get a license, and then when they will start moving to outlaw human drivers entirely because it’s too unsafe and irresponsible to allow humans to drive on public roads anymore. I give that maybe 20 years before people begin thinking seriously about it.