Lawmakers aren't keeping up with the pace of technology

Who is responsible for an accident when an autonomous car is involved? Picture: Shutterstock.
Who is responsible for an accident when an autonomous car is involved? Picture: Shutterstock.

In the early 1990s, many lawmakers around the world started introducing legislation in relation to sex offender registration and notification.

This legislation was focused on sexually-violent predators or paedophiles.

As just another example of legislation being behind technology, the first text message was sent around the same time. At no stage was anyone ever considering text messaging when they were drafting legislation in relation to sex offender registrations.

Move forward to today, though, and clumsy teenagers, for reasons beyond my understanding, sometimes choose to sext with their friends. Unbeknown to said teenagers, this act could see them wind up on a sex offender registry. I am quite certain the lawmakers were not targeting a 15-year-old on a journey of discovery.

There are many more examples of legislation dragging the chain, but one area that we will see significant activity on in coming years will be autonomous cars.

Who is responsible for an accident when an autonomous car is involved?

For example, who is responsible for an accident when an autonomous car is involved. A report has just been released that is quite clear in removing the blame from the humans in the vehicle if it is involved in an accident. When there is no one to blame, will the standards quickly drop?

Well, it is not so much that there will be no one to blame, but the occupants won't be to blame. According to the report, the company behind the driving system should be held responsible. But when is the car in control and when is the driver just being assisted?

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There are five defined levels of self-driving cars. Level 0 is no assistance at all.

Level 1 allows the driver to delegate either steering or accelerating/braking to the system. Cruise control; emergency braking or lane departure warnings.

Level 2 is partial automation. The system will perform several driving tasks. At Level 2, it is all about assistance to a driver.

At Level 3, the car drives autonomously under certain conditions. The driver may actually divert their attention away from the road for a short period of time.

At Level 4, the vehicle controls complete journeys on the highway as well as in some city traffic. Drivers could devote themselves to other tasks for periods of the journey including sleeping. The driver may take back control.

At Level 5, we have full autonomous driving. No driving skills and no licence is even required to be in the "driving" seat. The driver is a passenger. The car doesn't require a steering wheel or pedals.

The report said the varying levels of autonomous driving creates confusion. We need a binary system. Is this car autonomous or not? Many people currently claim to have an autonomous car simply because the steering wheel vibrates when it drifts outside of a lane. That is a long way from playing VR Tetris while in the driving seat.

One recommendation from the report was for car makers to have enough data to understand fault and liability after a collision. This sounds like a black box from an aeroplane. Modern recording devices, including video, are easily accessible so combining that data with data from controls would help improve safety in a shortened timeframe.

It is now up to legislators to use the information from the report and take the rare opportunity for the regulations to be ahead of the technology. And, of course, the challenge is for the researchers to deliver on the promise of autonomous driving.

Tell me what it would take for you to sit in an autonomous vehicle with no steering wheel at ask@techtalk.digital.

  • Mathew Dickerson is a technologist, futurist and host of the Tech Talk podcast.
This story Lawmakers aren't keeping up with the pace of technology first appeared on The Canberra Times.