Video footage of a Tesla vehicle ramming straight into an overturned truck was captured on May 31 by a closed circuit television camera on a section of the Sun Yat-sen Freeway (Freeway No. 1) in Chiayi County and began circulating online.
The footage shows the Tesla speeding straight toward the impaired truck 200m away, probably because the driver had turned on the autopilot system. Tellingly, all of the other vehicles in the video take evasive action to avoid hitting the truck.
While the Tesla proved to be a sturdy vehicle, the accident has revealed a blind spot in automated driving systems. The question is: Who is responsible if someone dies?
Under Japanese law, a causal relationship is established to assign responsibility in cases of negligence leading to accidental death. The main point is whether the driver of the vehicle fulfilled their duty by taking due care under the road conditions at the time of the accident.
If the driver is found not to have taken reasonable care, then the court would seek to determine whether such carelessness could be expected to have led to the death. Therefore, under Japanese law, primary responsibility rests with the driver of the vehicle, not the vehicle’s manufacturer.
Under German law, the opposite is true. In Germany, the concept of “objective responsibility” is used to establish liability in cases involving negligence.
According to the concept, the first test is to determine whether the driver did anything dangerous that is not permitted under the law. The second test is to determine whether the danger came to pass. The third and final test is to establish whether acting in accordance with the law would have allowed for the danger to be averted.
Applying these tests to the Tesla crash shows that the danger cannot be said to have been caused by illegal actions on the part of the driver, as the vehicle is permitted on public roads and its autopilot system legal. Thus, the driver cannot be blamed for the accident.
Instead, responsibility lies with Tesla and the government body responsible for permitting the vehicle to be driven on public roads. In the eyes of the law, it would be contradictory for the government to certify the autopilot system safe for use, but to hold the driver responsible when an accident occurs when the system is turned on.
Several companies operating in Taiwan have been found liable based on the concept of “objective responsibility” in cases of negligence, but if a fatal crash occurred with a Tesla vehicle on autopilot, the assignment of responsibility might not be straightforward.
The Puyuma Express derailment on Oct. 21, 2018, resulted in 18 deaths and 291 injures. While the case is still working its way through the courts, three Taiwan Railways Administration employees, who have been charged with negligence, pleaded not guilty at a hearing at the Yilan District Court in October last year.
Once a judgement is made, the high-profile case is to add complexity to an already complex body of case law related to traffic accidents.
For example, Taoyuan International Airport Corp in November last year announced that it would this year begin testing autonomous vehicles to convey passengers from Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport’s Terminal 2 to a parking area.
A press release at the time said that the autonomous vehicles would take users to their destination based on user commands, but there was no mention of the user being held responsible in the case of an accident.
If an accident were to occur, not only should the user and the vehicle manufacturer be held liable, but also the government for allowing the use of an automated system that was not absolutely safe and reliable.
To pre-empt the inevitable increase of autonomous vehicles, government agencies responsible for road and vehicle management should re-examine how vehicles promoted for their self-driving can be safely used on the nation’s roads.
Government agencies responsible for monitoring the media should carefully review whether advertising for autonomous vehicles is accurate and contains sufficient warnings on the technology’s limitations, otherwise the government could become liable for compensation.
Jeng Shann-yinn is an honorary professor at Kainan University’s law department.
Translated by Edward Jones
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