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Communications of the ACM

Law and technology

Is the Law Ready for Driverless Cars?

Is the Law Ready for Driverless Cars? illustrative photo

Credit: Phase4Studios

I am a law professor who teaches torts and has been studying driverless cars for almost a decade. Despite the headlines, I am reasonably convinced U.S. common law is going to adapt to driverless cars just fine. The courts have seen hundreds of years of new technology, including robots. American judges have had to decide, for example, whether a salvage operation exercises exclusive possession over a shipwreck by visiting it with a robot submarine (it does) and whether a robot copy of a person can violate their rights of publicity (it can). Assigning liability in the event of a driverless car crash is not, in the run of things, all that tall an order.

There is, however, one truly baffling question courts will have to confront when it comes to driverless cars—and autonomous systems in general: What to do about genuinely unforeseeable categories of harm?


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