Academic Research

Who is in the driving seat? Autonomous Vehicles and the problem of responsibility

The technology for autonomous vehicles is developing rapidly but is the law keeping pace? Read all about it here and watch the video of the talk by Dr. Siraj Shaikh.

By Dr Amber Darr, Coventry Law School

On 19th March 2021, Coventry Law School’s ‘AI and the Law Forum’ had the very great pleasure of hosting Professor Siraj Ahmed Shaikh, to deliver a talk on ‘Autonomy in Vehicles and Legal Perspectives: Who is in the Driving Seat?’ As a Professor of Systems Security and Director of Research at the Institute of Future Transport and Cities (IFTC) at Coventry University and co-Founder and Chief Scientist at CyberOwl, Prof. Shaikh is extremely well placed to discuss the issues of liability that arise in respect of autonomous vehicles. 

While Prof. Shaikh was of the view that Autonomous vehicles (AVs) represent the transport of the future and have the potential to revolutionise mobility altogether, he was also of the opinion that they raise complex engineering and legal challenges. The engineering challenge stems from trying to understand and work with a system that needs integration across communication, sensors and controls, the legal challenge is one of assigning responsibility for the actions or accidents of these vehicles. Prof. Shaikh particularly invited the audience to consider the level of reliability of a driverless car and asked them who they would hold liable for the actions of and accidents caused by such vehicles. He underlined that these questions are important not only for designing the cars themselves but also the necessary insurance policies for taking them out on the road. He also outlined the complex ethical decisions that would have to be made along the automotive supply chain regarding the choice of technologies and engineering architectures and emphasised that these decisions would affect road safety. 

Despite the futuristic tone of Prof. Siraj’s talk he was immediately able to underscore the importance of this discussion for today’s audience by sharing with them pictures of two self-driving vehicles recently acquired by Coventry University from StreetDrone, their technology partner. He informed the audience that the two electric Nissan e-NV200s boast a whole host of connectivity, sensing and monitoring technologies that will support IFTC’s Systems Security Group in maintaining its position as a leading authority in the area of secure connected mobility. The vehicles will allow researchers to gather vital data on driver-vehicle interaction by monitoring parameters such as the head position, gaze and blink rate of the driver; provide the opportunity to test vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity and security, with each Nissan carrying laser rangefinders to measure the proximity of surrounding vehicles and sophisticated data logging systems, and support the aims of the university’s wider research activity by facilitating mass collection of real-world data and surveying in a range of areas including such as environmental research, smart city urban sensing, geo-mapping and health technology development.

His excitement for technological advancement notwithstanding, Prof. Shaikh expressed concern that the law was still lagging behind in developing tools for addressing the issue of liability with regard to such vehicles. He shared with the audience the report of an October 2020 accident in which the backup driver of an Uber self-driving car had been charged over a crash that killed a pedestrian. Lengthy investigations by police and the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed that  the fatal collision as “entirely avoidable” if the driver had been watching the road rather than being ‘visually distracted throughout the trip by her personal cell phone’. This incident really drives home the point that human beings cannot be absolved of all liability for the doings of autonomous vehicles, but do not help resolve where the balance of this liability lies. 

Human beings cannot be absolved of all liability for the doings of autonomous vehicles

Finally, Prof. Shaikh left the audience with the ‘Trolley Problem’. This is a series of thought experiments in ethics and psychology, involving stylized ethical dilemmas of whether to sacrifice one person to save a larger number first posed by Philippa Foot (an English philosopher and one of the founders of contemporary virtue ethics) and derives its title from 1976 philosophy paper by Judith Jarvis Thomson (an American philosopher who studied and worked on ethics and metaphysics). In the context of AI driven autonomous vehicles, the problem may be recast as follows: ‘if there were no other option, should your autonomous vehicle harm several pedestrians by swerving, or sacrifice its own passenger to save a greater number of passers-by?’

The talk was a huge success and was attended by staff and students from Coventry Law School as well as from throughout the University. The talk was also live streamed to students of University Management and Technology which is Coventry Law School’s partner institution in Lahore, Pakistan as part of a two-week COIL Project on AI and the Law. The video link to the talk may be accessed here.

Dr Amber Darr is a Lecturer in International Competition Law and Policy at Coventry Law School and convenes the AI and the Law Forum jointly with Dr. Luo Li. You can find out more about Amber’s research through her Pure profile, where you can find more on her research interests, publications, and contact details. You can also find out more about Coventry University’s research through our dedicated research pages.

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