From Self-driving cars to the Thought Police and Big Brother…

As widely reported, for example here, here and here, a Law Commission of England and Wales report recommends a new system of legal accountability for vehicles with self-driving capabilities, anticipating the future when vehicles drive themselves for a part, or all, of a journey without a human driver paying attention to the road. When the vehicle’s driving itself, the Commission recommends that the ‘human driver’ is immune from prosecution if anything goes wrong. Instead, liability will rest with the company or body that produced and approved the vehicle and its technology for use.

The Badger read this while taking a break from entertaining his energetic grandson who’d tired himself out and was having a nap on the sofa. The mass use of completely driver-less cars at level 5, a nirvana for some, is still years away, but the report illustrates that there’s more than technology to be addressed if vehicles with higher levels of self-driving capability are to be introduced and used safely on busy public road networks.

Three thoughts came to the fore. The first was that at the higher levels of self-driving capability, cars are like aeroplanes for the roads, and so manufacturers and operators will need to adhere to airline industry-type standards in order to keep vehicle occupants safe. The second was that enormous amounts of data needs to be stored and available for use as evidence in insurance claims and legal disputes when there are, for example, accidents. Who stores it and where? Who has access to it and under what circumstances? How is privacy and personal freedom protected? The answers aren’t yet clear, at least to the Badger. The third was that insurance companies will progressively find ways of minimising their liabilities as the higher levels of self-driving cars become commonplace in the mix of traffic. The Badger has thus resolved to henceforth read his motor insurance policy terms with a laser-like legal focus on renewal every year! Overall, it seems clear that the requirement for a vehicle to have a human driver will be with us for a very long time yet.

The move towards driver-less cars is just another example of how the relentless march of technology means the toddler sleeping peacefully on the sofa will grow up in a world with similarities to that in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.   That’s an uncomfortable thought, but for all the conveniences and benefits, the internet and digital revolution of recent decades has eroded privacy and made surveillance in society easier. The Badger’s wife chided him for being gloomy before confidently saying that our grandson will grow up to be a scientist or engineer solving life’s real problems and won’t worry about such matters. The Badger chuckled. Regardless of his career choices, the toddler already has the rebellious independence and intelligence that means he will never succumb to the Thought Police and Big Brother!

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