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Robotics and the Law
Robotics and the Law

Panel Discussion at Association of Defense Counsel (ADC) – Dec 9, 2010

Dan Siciliano and Ryan Calo (both, of Stanford Law School), along with Stephen Wu (Cooke Kobrick & Wu LLP), Douglas Robinson (Shook Hardy & Bacon, L.L.P.), and Sven Beiker (Center for Automotive Research at Stanford) led a panel on the legal aspects of autonomous driving at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Defense Counsel of Northern California and Nevada in San Francisco on Dec 9, 2010. The panel’s title was “Sudden Acceleration Into the Future: Liability from Autonomous Driving and Robotics.” The objective of the panel discussion was to raise awareness among lawyers about advanced driver assistance systems as well as autonomous driving, and to initiate a conversation in the legal field about the implications this technology might have for the legal realm. The Annual ADC Meeting brings together defense attorneys from Northern California and Nevada to discuss current and upcoming topics in areas such as products liability, construction, medical malpractice, and employment law.

The ADC chose to focus on the future and upcoming legal issues as the theme for its Annual Meeting. The panel discussion on autonomous driving was part of the ADC’s outlook on future legal matters. The goal of the panel was to help lawyers prepare for defense litigation of the future and to seek the lawyers’ opinion and concerns about the fledging field of robotics law.

At the beginning of the panel, Sven Beiker gave a presentation on the challenges of individual mobility and the motivation for autonomous driving. He showed several videos to explain current production and research systems. He also presented a timeline for the evolution of autonomous driving, beginning with today’s driver assistance systems, and projecting a timeline leading to full autonomous driving. The presentation concluded with a call for collaboration and communication regarding the benefits and challenges of autonomous driving. Deploying autonomous vehicle technology will not only require engineering expertise and technical infrastructure, but also legal and public policy support.

Stephen Wu gave an overview of relevant litigation in the field of automated / autonomous systems. His program materials included a survey of robotics products liability cases. He emphasized that the automotive field, with more and more intelligent vehicles, presents a great challenge to the legal field, as accidents will happen even with autonomous vehicles. These accidents will lead to unprecedented liability questions. He also emphasized that lawyers will need to change the way they practice products liability law. With the use of information technology and artificial intelligence in vehicles, lawyers will need to become familiar with the parties involved in manufacturing driver assistance systems, they must understand how manufacturers design and build systems that involve information technology and artificial intelligence, and they will need to become familiar with sources of possible defects. In short, the practice of products liability law will become a “high tech” field.

Douglas Robinson summarized recent litigation in automotive product liability and explained that those cases have now reached already a level of complexity that presents great challenges. For instance, he pointed out that vehicle manufacturers were accused in some cases of not offering certain safety systems (e.g. Electronic Stability Control) in their vehicles, while these systems were available in others. The manufacturers therefore faced the claim that the vehicle was not state of the art. The litigation might create a certain push for autonomous vehicles once the first vehicles will have been equipped with this technology.

Dan Siciliano discussed in his presentation how accident patterns might change through autonomous vehicles. While the normal assumption is that accidents would be reduced significantly through this technology, they will never disappear completely. Moreover, the typical driver profile and characteristics might change due to changing driving tasks for the driver and the autonomous system. Therefore not only lawyers, but also the general public and governments need to consider that while some new accident types might occur, many others would be avoided. Courts may balance these costs and benefits, and should consider this broader perspective when determining possible liability.

Ryan Calo also gave an overview of other cutting-edge technology fields that raise new considerations in litigation. One set of considerations involve how robotics will challenge privacy law by making surveillance easier in public and private spaces. Another has to do with liability for personal robots. Robots will catch on more quickly and be more useful if third-party developers and users can program and modify them. But this also opens manufacturers up to potential product liability claims in the event of physical damage or injury. As a result of these challenges, he is writing publications to present the idea of limited immunity for robot manufacturers and artificial intelligence systems, to foster and encourage innovation, and prevent crippling products liability suits, while preserving some leeway for compensation for damages.

In order to study this field in greater detail, Stanford Law School is currently establishing a fellowship program “Legal Aspects of Autonomous Driving” which is also supported by the Center for Automotive Research. The research by the fellow funded through this program will help lawyers and policy makers better understand the legal challenges involved with mass deployment of autonomous driving systems.

After discussion by the panelists, the question and answer session generated a lot of interest among the audience. While the topic was new to most of the attendees, the relevance and magnitude of the issues raised by the panelists became apparent immediately. Listed below are some of the questions that arose:

- When will autonomous driving be ready for public deployment and what steps will be taken to facilitate deployment?

- What are the next steps in research after the DARPA Grand and Urban Challenges?

- What role will infrastructure play in deploying autonomous cars? – What does the litigation concerning unintended acceleration involve, and where does it stand?

- Is the vehicle loss of control/acceleration litigation a template for future litigation involving autonomous vehicles?

- What do we need to change in order to better defend the manufacturer and the driver?

- What are the compelling “economic” reasons that seem to argue for rapid deployment of autonomous vehicles?

- How might the widespread introduction of autonomous vehicle technology change the insurance industry?

- What can past cases concerning robotics tell us about liability concerning autonomous vehicles?

- If we are going to make legislative changes concerning autonomous vehicle liability, what bodies will consider that legislation

- What sorts of policy and legal hurdles do autonomous vehicles confront?

- What unique business opportunities do autonomous vehicles create?

The publications and presentations can be downloaded below:

- Paper “Legal Aspects of Autonomous Driving” by S. Beiker and R. Calo: download here

- Paper “Summary of Robotics Liability Cases” by S. Wu: download here

- Presentation “Autonomous Driving – When Technology is Not Enough” by S. Beiker: download here

- Presentation “Generalized Model for Driving & Accident Reduction” by D. Siciliano: download here

For further information contact Sven Beiker: beiker@stanford.edu

(Sven Beiker wrote this blog post, and Stephen Wu edited the post.)

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