Who is legally liable for accidents caused by autonomous vehicles?

Who should pay if an autonomous vehicle causes an accident: the owner, the carmaker, or the developer of the AI software?
19 October 2020

Who should pay if an autonomous vehicle causes an accident: the owner, the carmaker, or the developer of the AI? Source: AFP

It is getting more urgent by the day to curb the rising ebb of road accidents globally, one of the main causes of premature fatalities. Autonomous vehicles could be the answer to safer driving experiences, even if you aren’t the one actually driving. But what if the self-driving vehicle itself causes the accident – who is responsible then?

That was the question being debated at a panel discussion at a recent TechLaw.Fest forum in Singapore, which argued the need for better legislation to govern the use and the liability that might arise from the use of cutting-edge technologies like AI and robotics. Who should bear losses or pay for damages in the event of an accident involving automated driving?

Should it be the car owner, the vehicle manufacturer, or the developers of the artificial intelligence (AI) software that pilots the vehicle? This discussion is one of many that involve the governing of next-generational technology is like AI, robotics, and the interconnectivity of the internet of things (IoT).

Legal gray zone for autonomous vehicles

“The unique ability of autonomous robots and AI systems to operate independently without any human involvement muddies the waters of liability,” said Charles Lim, co-chair of the Singapore Academy of Law’s Subcommittee on Robotics and Artificial Intelligence.

The 11-member Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Sub-committee had just published its report on what can be done to establish civil liability in such cases last month. Singapore, despite ranking first in the 2019 International Development Research Centre’s Government Artificial Intelligence Readiness Index, still does not have law systems in place for governing liability stemming from robots or AI, including civil liability for autonomous vehicles (AVs).

“There are multiple factors [in play] such as the AI system’s underlying software code, the data it was trained on, and the external environment the system is deployed in,” argued Lim. Such extenuating factors could contribute towards more lack of clarity, such as what if the AV’s onboard AI system was malfunctioning due to a bug introduced by a software update?

Or what if a self-driving car faces a new obstacle, one that its AI has not been trained to avoid in the past. Will a collision caused by that be the fault of the AI provider, or someone else who failed to train the AI on this unexpected obstacle?

Such scenarios are detailed in the 68-page Report on the Attribution of Civil Liability for Accidents Involving Autonomous Cars by Lim’s subcommittee. The report discusses the issues, plausible legal scenarios, and the potential liabilities, and is meant to encourage discussion within the legal community in Singapore and with other stakeholders in the autonomous vehicle value chain

Since 2017, when Singapore launched a SGD150 million (approximately US$109 million) national program to deepen its AI capabilities in preparation for digitalization, the country has been making sizable investments in AI as it establishes itself as the preeminent AI research and development hub in Southeast Asia.

Since then, AI-driven applications have been spotted across the city-state, including in education, healthcare, and recently it has even been spotted to help with building safety inspections by powering AI-enabled drones.