Do we need new safety regulation for autonomous systems?

haydn.thompson Friday October 5, 2018

It is clear that there is a need for regulation with respect to safety, and an update to the laws regarding liability. Although mandatory standards exist, e.g., ISO 26262 for safety in the automotive domain, IEC61508 for industrial electronics, and other more domain specific standards to maintain acceptance on the market, there is currently no public authority third party, such as found in the aerospace industry, to oversee the release of a newly developed product. This responsibility is kept at the OEM level.

Safety regulation is needed, but this needs firstly to recognise that removing human error will on balance save lives. The aim is not to have zero accidents. However, a challenge is that humans are about three orders of magnitude less tolerant of deaths caused by external factors (e.g. train crashes) than by factors they perceive themselves to have control over (e.g. car crashes). As a consequence, autonomous systems need to be about 1000 times safer than the manual ones they replace to be accepted. There is also no point making the owners and operators of autonomous systems legally responsible for systems that they have no chance of understanding or managing. The legal responsibility needs to be shifted from individual vehicle owners and “operators” to the designer and infrastructure system operators.

There is also no point in having autonomous systems that require a human operator to take over in a time-critical emergency, because the human operator will not have sufficient situational awareness to do so. This is shown by numerous aviation studies. It takes a human operator a significant time to re-orientate, so an autonomous vehicle will need to automatically bring itself into a safe and stable state before handing over to a human. Fundamentally, fully autonomous operation is needed to cover the situations where autonomous cars are particularly beneficial, e.g. when the human is drunk, asleep, unfit to drive (too old, blind, etc.).

Looking to the future the expectation is that the insurance industry will shift to insuring the manufacturers of autonomous systems rather than car owners. If companies decide to self-insure, there may be a need for legislation and government to ensure that a company’s maximum potential liability does not exceed their assets. If they do not have sufficient assets, then insurance should be compulsory.

So what is needed? Firstly, there are many restrictions across Europe on autonomous driving and here the European Commission has a role to play in providing harmonisation. This requires regulation, clarification of the responsibility of the OEMs, and support to educate the public, e.g. via public demonstration. Already a number of significant actions are already underway, but there is still a long road ahead before we see fully autonomous vehicles on our streets.