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The Dark Side of Autonomous Vehicles That No One is Talking About | Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law

Huge leaps in technology within the last decade have brought a once far-fetched idea to the forefront – the prospect of a driverless vehicle. Although some companies claim the technology is already here, economic pressures and city-specific obstacles have steered the focus of this new innovation away from personal vehicles and towards freight in the form of driverless semi-trailers.

While much has been written about the possible impact on the economy of such a radical innovation to the trucking industry, the legal implications have often gone overlooked. Articles tend to focus on how practical the technology really is, estimates of how many jobs will be lost, or the ripple effect of losing so many truck driver jobs.

Aside from technology and economics, there are other concerns that our society should be thinking about, such as the legal implications of such a drastic move. For example, who will be held liable for accidents of autonomous trucks on the roadway? Each year, roughly 4,000 people die in semi-trailer-related accidents, with 97% of the deaths being a person other than the truck driver. Conventionally, if a driver is at fault, a victim (or a victim’s family) can bring suit against the truck driver, and likely the shipping company, in court.

However, in a world where a computer operates a semi-trailer instead of a person, who can be held at fault? It is unclear whether a victim’s path to recovery includes the shipping company or the manufacturer of the vehicle itself. To make matters even worse for potential victims, our federal government has sought to encourage innovation of driverless vehicles by attempting to enact laws that prevent or substantially limit liability for manufacturers. Further, how will the public react to deaths caused by machines rather than other people? Is there an implicit understanding or forgiveness for an accident caused by a human that will not be extended to a machine? As driverless automobiles become closer and closer to reality, these questions remain to be answered.

A second legal implication concerns the effect of autonomous cars on workers in the industry. One work-around to the problem of complicated city roadways is that semi-trailers could be completely autonomous on large highways but defer to a driver when nearing the destination. This calls into question the effectiveness of the current restriction on commercial driver’s hours. When is the driver “driving” under the definition? The driver wouldn’t be driving except for just a few minutes on each route. Thus, logistics companies could capitalize on this by keeping their drivers “on call” in the truck for hours and hours on end. At a minimum, new regulations would need to be considered and enacted to address this and a multitude of other changes to the freight industry. Some states have already enacted various laws applying to driverless automobiles in an effort to get ahead of potential problems.

There is also a dark side to completely autonomous trucking – cyber terrorism. With tens of thousands of 80,000 lb. trucks operating autonomously all over the nation, hackers may be able to take advantage, especially since the payload of many of these trucks is 9,000 gallons of gasoline. As virtually everything we interact with becomes “connected,” our society has witnessed huge drawbacks. For example, many of our nation’s hospitals moved all their data online in efforts to increase efficiency and reduce human errors. However, this has backfired for more than a few hospitals as they find themselves locked out of their own files by cyber terrorists and forced to pay large sums of money to continue saving lives. Hospitals are by no means alone as some of the world’s largest law firms and government sites also face cybersecurity threats. The difference? A cyber terrorist who compromises a hospital or law firm and gains control of their system doesn’t obtain control of thousands of 80,000 lb. trucks driving around the country. Without a physical person at the wheel, what exists to stop cyber terrorists from demanding payment or orchestrating thousands of horrific crashes throughout the nation? How does law enforcement stop a compromised 80,000 lb. semi-truck? How does it prevent thousands of these trucks from driving into whatever the cyber terrorist wishes? And, legally speaking, what is the scope of a manufacturer’s duty, if any, to solidify its cybersecurity in the face of such an enormous risk?

In the face of all of these unanswered questions, will Congress continue the path it started and betray thousands of potential victims in favor of encouraging this innovation?

We, as a nation, should not marvel at technology to the point that we neglect to stop and think about the drawbacks to the innovation – no matter how lucrative or awe-inspiring that innovation is.

–Brent Duddles

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