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Robo-Cars Face A New Threat: Lawyers

Publication Date: 
April 09, 2013
Declan McCullagh

CIS Affiliate Scholar Ryan Calo spoke with CNET's Declan McCullagh on why he believes there's a need for Congress to provide selective immunity to robot makers just as they do for firearm manufacturers and Internet service providers. 

Self-driving cars are expected to save lives: a vehicle driven by a human will experience, on average, a crash every 160,000 miles or so. It's only a matter of time, advocates say, before robots become better drivers than us.

That is, if the lawyers let them. Industry insiders are already fretting about a host of legal problems that could bedevil robot car makers once a sufficient number of their creations take to the roads. Product liability, tort law, negligence, foreseeable harm, patent encumbrance, and design defects are only some of the concerns.


"Is it appropriate to have a federal legislative response to the liability question?" said Bryant Smith, a resident fellow at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. "At this point I'm fairly agnostic."


Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington law school, has proposed extending selective immunity to robot makers in much the same way that Congress has provided selective immunity to firearm manufacturers and (through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Telecommunications Act of 1996) Internet services providers. Calo suggests that the immunity would only apply when "it is clear that the robot was under the control of the consumer, a third party software, or otherwise the result of end-user modification."