Freedom and privacy questions remain for self-driving cars

Published: June 11, 2015

Updated: July 24, 2018

Author: Callum Micucci

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Self-driving cars have been the talk of the tech world lately, with some estimates pegging their commercial release for as early as 2017, while conservative estimates suggest 2020 or later.

However, regulators have more than enough to grapple with before this new tech hits the road—namely, questions of privacy and freedom.

Yale Law School student Jack Boeglin published a paper this month that poses these questions and discusses what effect their answers have on determining liability in the event of a crash.

Boeglin outlines two aspects of autonomous vehicles that governments and regulators need to iron out before they hit the street: the level of discretion and the level of communication these cars offer.

Discretion (freedom) refers to how much control drivers will have over the vehicle. For example, will you be able to decide whether to engage the self-driving mode? Or will it always be active? Boeglin says regulators have to decide where to draw the line when it comes to how much freedom the driver retains.

Boeglin quotes Ben Walsh from New Republic on this point: “miserable as Americans are behind the wheel, they still love cars because they love being in complete control of a powerful machine. Take away the wheel and the pedals, and you’ve taken away whatever joy there is to driving.”

Boeglin continues: “Technology that strips cars of this symbolic and emotional value will, consequently, face resistance from diverse groups like automobile enthusiasts, rebellious teenagers, and those distrustful of big government.”

On the other hand, communication (privacy) refers to how “plugged in” a car is with the outside communications network. Will the car communicate with a central highway computer? Other cars? GPS? Or will the car be “uncommunicative,” meaning it uses only equipment already on-board?

“Judging by the uproar occasioned by the comparatively unobtrusive introduction of red light cameras,” writes Boeglin, “many AV users would probably be averse to having their vehicles’ behavior systematically relayed to local police and/or other government entities.”

Boeglin ties these two points to legal issues. How do different levels of discretion and communication impact our rights to privacy and freedom? What level of privacy is society willing to trade off so they don’t have to battle traffic anymore? What level of freedom do drivers want to hand over so they can “drive” themselves home after a boozy night out?

Finally, Boeglin addresses one of the more common questions about this technology: who’s liable if one of these cars causes a crash? If you’re not driving, how could you be to blame? Does this technology shift liability to the manufacturer? If so, what does this mean for traditional insurance companies?

As Boeglin writes, “crashes involving (autonomous vehicles) […] defy the traditional conceptions of fault and agency at play in automobile accidents.”

Boeglin concludes by urging “proactive consideration of freedom and privacy regulation, which would likely be more effective than the free market at finding an optimal balance of these values in self-driving cars.”

Check out the original article published in the Yale Journal of Law & Technology here.