Harry Surden and Mary-Anne Williams on ‘Autonomous Vehicles, Predictability, and Law’

Harry Surden

Harry Surden

Fully autonomous or “self-driving” automobiles are vehicles “which can drive themselves without human supervision or input.” Because of improvements in driving safety and efficiency, fully autonomous vehicles are likely to become an increasing presence in our physical environment in the 5–15 year time frame. An important point is that, for the first time, people will be moving throughout a physical environment shared not just with other people (e.g. pedestrians), machines controlled by other people (e.g. automobiles), or constrained automated machines (e.g. elevators), but also with computer-controlled, self-directed systems that have freedom of movement and the ability to direct their own activities. Free ranging, computer-directed autonomous movement is a novel phenomenon that is likely to challenge certain basic assumptions embedded in our existing legal structure.

Today, a great deal of physical harm that might otherwise occur is likely avoided through humanity’s collective ability to predict the movements of others in our nearby physical environment. In anticipating the behavior of others in this way, we employ, in part, what psychologists call a “theory of mind.” A “theory of mind” refers to our ability to extrapolate from our own internal mental states and project them onto others in order to estimate what others are thinking, feeling, or likely to do. The internal cognitive mechanisms involved in theory-of-mind assessment allow us to make instantaneous, unconscious judgments about the likely actions of those around us, and therefore, to keep ourselves safe.

Mary-Anne Williams

Mary-Anne Williams

Problematically, the movements of autonomous cars (and other autonomous moving systems like robots and drones) tend to be less predictable to ordinary people than the comparable movements of devices controlled by humans. The core theory-of-mind mechanisms that allow us to accurately model the minds of other people and interpret their communicative signals of attention and intention will be challenged in the context of non-human, autonomous moving entities such as self-driving cars. The argument is not that autonomous vehicles are less safe than human-driven cars, nor that autonomous vehicles are inherently unpredictable systems. To the contrary, most experts expect autonomous driving to be safer than human driving, and their behavior is quite predictable overall to the engineers who designed them. Rather, the argument is that we must focus upon making the movements of autonomous vehicles more predictable relative to the ordinary people—such as pedestrians—who will share their physical environment. To the extent that certain areas of law are concerned with avoiding harm (e.g. tort and regulatory law), this potential diminishment in predictability will bring new challenges that should be addressed.

Harry Surden will present Autonomous Vehicles, Predictability, and Law on Friday, April 1st at 3:00 PM with discussant Dan Siciliano at the University of Miami Newman Alumni Center in Coral Gables, Florida.

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