When Autonomous Cars Collide, Who's At Fault? Vaccines Could Provide An Answer

March 8, 2013

The matter is settled: autonomous cars are coming.

But they raise a serious question that no one's been able to answer: when a self-driving car is in an accident, who's to blame? The manufacturer? The software engineer? The owner?

Earlier today, the folks at NPR addressed this very issue, and they posed an intriguing solution -- one that's grounded in the way we treat vaccines.


In the mid-1980s, British researchers issued a study that potentially linked the diphtheria–pertussis–tetanus (DPT) vaccine to neurological damage in children. Although the study was later discredited, parents around the world panicked. Here in the U.S., several sued the manufacturers of DPT vaccines and won sizable settlements. 

Not surprisingly, those manufacturers became worried, threatening to scale back research and development efforts. In turn, health officials began fretting about preventable diseases spiraling out of control.

In response, the U.S. Congress launched the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program in 1988. According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine: "The funding for paying successful claims regarding vaccines administered before 1988 came from the U.S. Treasury. For claims regarding later vaccinations, funding comes from a patient fee of 75 cents per vaccination. The VICP trust fund currently contains more than $2 billion."


That's an interesting model. On the autonomous car front, buyers could pay a fee (presumably more than 75 cents) that would go toward a fund, which would pay damages to persons involved in accidents in which autonomous vehicles were at fault.

The rationale for creating such a fund, however, would be tricky to pin down. The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was begun to promote medical research and to ensure the health of U.S. citizens. Why would the government create a similar program for autonomous car manufacturers? To ensure technological innovation? That seems weak. Isn't that what capitalism is for -- to reward innovators with financial gain?

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and others would argue that launching such a program wouldn't be all that different from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, because both are designed to save lives. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that technology like vehicle-to-vehicle communications -- software that would live on most autonomous cars -- could prevent more than 81% of accidents on U.S. roads [PDF].

Our take? Fully autonomous vehicles may be years away from showrooms. However, autonomous features like adaptive cruise control and lane assist are here right now, and those features allow onboard computers to assume control of vehicles. So, what happens if there's an accident when HAL is at the wheel?

In other words, someone -- legislators, automakers, software engineers, and/or Google -- needs to do some serious thinking about this problem very, very soon. 

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