Self-driving cars are a rapidly evolving technology which only a few years ago was still considered science fiction. A self-driving car (sometimes called an autonomous car or driverless car) is a vehicle that uses a combination of sensors, cameras, radar and artificial intelligence (AI) to travel between destinations without a human operator. According to the WIRED guide to self-driving cars companies developing and/or testing autonomous cars include Audi, BMW, Ford, Google, General Motors, Tesla, Volkswagen and Volvo all prowling the streets of California and Michigan, Paris and London, Singapore and Beijing. The question is, how will legislation need to be altered around these new robocars, especially in the case of an injured human?
South Africa can likely expect to see the same trends in the near future although there are currently debates about various issues including connectivity, safety and regulation, regardless of these roadblocks, a recent article in BusinessTech suggests the first test is expected as early as October 2018.
While many national and local authorities have accommodated the testing of self-driving vehicles, there is no regulation in South Africa regarding the issue. Considering current legislation like the Road Accident Fund Act that only compensates the victim if the human driver isn’t proven negligent, who would they hold responsible in the case of a malfunctioning robot? Take for example a recent case involving a self-driving Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona where a pedestrian crossing the road was killed tragically and the investigating police had to submit the case to the county attorney’s office because they had to try to determine if anyone was at fault. Clearly, the Road Accident Fund would need to be updated in line with the parameters of driverless vehicles if these types of incidents occur on South African roads.
Consumer expectations of a product are also relevant to the issue of product liability. As cars become more autonomous, the fault for accidents could arguably shift from the driver to the manufacturer, meaning they could likely be brought under the Consumer Protection Act in South Africa. There are further complexities to consider too because theoretically, you are dealing with suing a computer system connected to the internet, so for example, cybersecurity, as well as connectivity, also come not to play such as in the case of Google’s WAYMO model which was taken offline for a period of time due to hackers.
That being said, we cannot deny that we are at the dawn of a new era of technology and undoubtedly these modes of transport will penetrate into our daily lives over the coming years in South Africa. It will be an interesting journey as attorneys watching our laws evolve to protect the human beings that will come to rely on them.
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