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Communications of the ACM

Letters to the Editor

Let the Liable Pay

Letters to the Editor


In his letter to the editor "Who Pays When Autonomous Fails?" (Nov. 2015) on Keith Kirkpatrick's news story "The Moral Challenges of Driverless Cars" (Aug. 2015), Hans Grünberger attacked my proposal for ethics review boards (, implying I intend certification by such boards as a mechanism for shielding software companies and vehicle manufacturers from liability for the inevitable property damage, injuries, and deaths that will result from even the best-designed autonomous vehicles. This mischaracterizes my beliefs and my proposal.

I did not (and do not) intend such boards to be a shield. On the contrary, software companies and vehicle manufacturers should be liable for the mishaps, great and small, of their products (they will then price accordingly). But the necessary ethical decisions will either be made by commercial interests in a vacuum, as generally happens today, or a way will be found to include the public interest and professional expertise, as in the mechanism I proposed—review boards comprised of manufacturers, lawyers, ethicists, and government entities. Likewise, in a related area—the basic safety of these vehicles—government regulation is necessary (, and I testified to this effect ( before the California Department of Motor Vehicles on January 2015, to the likely dismay of the automaker and Google representatives in attendance.


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