Why robot car manufacturers should be thinking like vaccine companies: Peter Nowak

Other industries have already figured out how to handle liability for products that can cause harm

Google self-driving car


With two big developments in the news this week, the race for robot cars is, er, really accelerating.

The United Kingdom on Wednesday announced it is reviewing the laws governing the use of driverless cars on its roads, with three cities to be selected for tests next year. Two types of research will be allowed, according to the Department of Transport: fully autonomous cars without a driver and those with a human driver who can take the wheel.

Moreover, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is kicking into an $18 million fund for driverless car research. Both moves are designed to keep the U.K. from falling behind in the development and commercialization of autonomous vehicles. The United States, thanks to Google, has a big lead in this department.

READ: How robot cars could triple highway capacity »

Not one to be outdone, China is getting in on the action too. Chinese search giant Baidu confirmed to The Next Web this week that it is also working on “highly autonomous” vehicles, with a plan to have a prototype ready next year.

While its robot cars will be similar to Google’s, one big difference—at least so far—is that the Chinese version will still have a steering wheel and pedals. “We don’t call this a driverless car. I think a car should be helping people, not replacing people, so we call this a highly autonomous car,” said Kai Yu, the head of Baidu’s Institute of Deep Learning.

If the idea of an autonomous car that still has a human in the loop seems ironic or even contradictory, that’s because it is.

READ: Why robot cars will still require human judges »

With driving being one of the things that humans are spectacularly bad at, robot vehicles are expected to dramatically reduce collision incidents. And yet, almost every manufacturer involved in development—including Baidu, Toyota, Volvo and so on—is stressing how humans will still ultimately be in control.

Such reassurances seem to be one part ego-boosting—as if to say to us humans that yes, we are good drivers after all—and one part self-preservation. Among the many questions still to be answered about robot cars, one of the biggest is who is responsible when and if one of them crashes and hurts someone—is it the human “driver” or is it the manufacturer?

While autonomous vehicle makers are salivating at the prospect of selling people safer cars, they’re also scared to death of being held accountable for their creations’ potential accidents.

READ: Google’s self-driving car is actually an entertainment system on wheels »

Several potential models have been floated, from the simple adjustment of existing insurance rules to a vaccine-like system. In the United States, for example, a trust fund protects vaccine makers from being destroyed by lawsuits while also compensating patients who fall ill from them.

It’s not a bad idea, since vaccines are similar to robot cars—they could save many people from death and illness, but they may occasionally make others seriously ill.