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Personal Injury

Self-driving cars raise serious ethical questions

Self-driving cars will improve safety and reduce casualties, but will also raise a number of ethical considerations, says Toronto personal injury lawyer Sharon Bauer.

But as technology and regulatory frameworks develop, Bauer wonders how the vehicles will be “programmed” to make certain decisions in potentially dangerous situations.

For example, if a vehicle with one passenger approaches a crowd of 10 people on the street, would it swerve to avoid the crowd, and crash into a nearby obstacle?

“And would the vehicle swerve even if it ‘knew’ it would hit a concrete wall resulting in the death of the passenger?” asks Bauer, a partner with Wolfe Lawyers.

“It’s a social dilemma, and not everyone is going to agree on what is right and wrong, and how the vehicle should be programmed.”

Engineers are now testing prototypes without steering wheels or pedals, just as some U.S. states are clearing the way for regulations that would allow those cars to operate without a licensed driver, the New York Times reports.

Bauer tells AdvocateDaily.com that the development of self-driving cars raises important questions.

“It’s also a question of, do people know the potential consequences of getting into these self-driving vehicles, and how it interacts with pedestrians or obstacles?” she asks. 

The cars also raise questions of responsibility. If the vehicle swerves to avoid a crowd, Bauer wonders if the vehicle owner or the manufacturer would be responsible for the death of an occupant.

At the very least, the vehicles are sure to have a major impact on the field of personal injury law — though she predicts it will take time until there is a significant number of them on the road. Bauer says Canada lags behind the U.S. and Asia when it comes to technology and regulatory advancements.

“We may see more lawsuits against the manufacturers, designers or programmers of these vehicles,” Bauer says. “And it will be entities that are sued as opposed to individuals, almost like a product liability claim. So the way we litigate cases on standard of care is certainly going to change.”

Another interesting aspect about the future of self-driving cars is, if there is a reduced number of accidents and fewer claims being paid out by insurance companies, it might lower insurance premiums, Bauer says.

“The downside is if the manufacturers of the self-driving vehicles realize there is more liability, they might try to counter that liability and their exposure in the price of the vehicle,” says Bauer.

 

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