Robot Cars Pose Unprecedented Risks to Consumers, Consumer Watchdog Tells CA Senate Committee

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SANTA MONICA, CA: “Self-driving” vehicles will pose unprecedented safety, security, and privacy risks, and insurance companies and auto makers will try to shift the blame – and the costs – to consumers through higher insurance rates, Consumer Watchdog warned today in an informational hearing in Sacramento conducted by the Senate Insurance Committee. California’s Proposition 103, which blocks excessive rates and bars discriminatory practices, will be critically important to protecting Californians, the group said.

“Proposition 103 will stop insurance companies and robot car and truck manufacturers from shifting the blame, and the cost, onto consumers when the robot car’s hardware and software fail,” said Harvey Rosenfield, author of the 1988 measure, in prepared testimony.

Traditional and Automated Vehicles Will Share “Hybrid Highway”

Lost in the hyperbole over driverless vehicles is an objective analysis of the impact of fully self-driving cars, which will comprise only a modest portion of all vehicles on the roads for decades to come, the group said. “That period will feature complex, potentially dangerous interactions between people (motorists and pedestrians), computer-driven cars and buses, remote-controlled drone vehicles, and so-called “intelligent” public streets and freeways that are supposed to help them all navigate safely.”

The risks posed by self-driving cars “include failures in extremely complex hardware … privacy breaches … hacking for criminal enterprises like smuggling, or even terrorist cyber-attacks….”

“Perhaps the most dangerous risk … is their unregulated substitution of computers and software for the moral and practical judgment of human beings… The robot vehicle will confront situations in which the choice is not whether to smash into someone, but rather who to hit when a collision is unavoidable: an oncoming vehicle, a pedestrian in a crosswalk, a mom pushing her infant in a stroller on the sidewalk?”

“The corporations that program these algorithms will be responsible for making life and death decisions that will place their financial interests in conflict with their customers’ lives,” said Consumer Watchdog.

Current Liability and Insurance Rules Indispensable in a “Hybrid Highway” System Where Robots and Humans Co-Exist

Liability under the current system of civil justice and insurance rules is based on fault. Today’s rules will require hardware and software manufacturers to assume strict liability for errors or defects that cause deaths, injury or property damage. “When something goes wrong [with automated vehicles], there’s no reason to believe that manufacturers will not contest liability and attempt to shift the blame to the human driver, just as they consistently do today. Indeed, in the limited experience so far, the companies that have deployed robot technologies have not readily accepted responsibility for the crashes and near-misses,” the group explained.

“So long as motorists face legal responsibility for the harm they cause – as they clearly will for decades to come – they will require liability insurance,” according to Consumer Watchdog, “and Proposition 103’s rules restraining unjustified insurance rates and unfair practices by insurance companies, such as California’s will become especially important to protect consumers against higher premiums and discrimination.”

Even in a distant future in which every Californian chooses to surrender their right to drive – “a highly debatable assumption,” the group noted – whoever is responsible for the vehicle will be subject to liability and thus need to carry insurance. This includes the person responsible for maintaining the vehicle’s sophisticated technologies against damage – in the driveway, for example.

Moves to Roll Back Consumer Protection Laws

Consumer Watchdog warned that allies of the robot car manufacturers and insurance companies have already proposed changing California’s laws to shift the blame to consumers and increase premiums. One of the proposals – “no fault” insurance – has been twice rejected by California voters at the ballot box. Insurance industry allies have also proposed to dump Proposition 103’s protections.

Harvey Rosenfield
Harvey Rosenfield
As Consumer Watchdog's founder, Harvey Rosenfield is one of the nation's foremost consumer advocates. Trained as a public interest lawyer, Rosenfield authored Proposition 103 and organized the campaign that led to its passage by California voters in 1988 despite over $80 million spent in opposition (still a record).

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