Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Meaning Lost in a Five-Car Collision

Synchronicity strikes again!  It was a wonderfully weird coincidence that I found myself reading Matt Weinberger’s Googling Google column for ZDNet this morning only a few days after (finally) watching the documentary Hot Coffee, which I had recorded from HBO on my VTR.  My only regret is that I waited so long to see this account of how large corporations have successfully managed to weasel their way out of responsibility in tort cases through an extensive public relations campaign against “frivolous lawsuits.”  My catalog of words and concepts that have succumbed to Max Weber’s warning about loss of meaning can now be extended to include “responsibility” and “accountability.”

Then Weinberger comes along and reinforces these additions to the list, drawing upon Google for his example.  The column amounted to a noble effort to make sense of the rather sparse account of what happened when one of Google’s self-driving cars was apparently responsible for a five-car collision.  The tally came from a witness report that Weinberger got from the San Francisco NBC channel:

Google’s Prius struck another Prius, which then struck her Honda Accord that her brother was driving. That Accord then struck another Honda Accord, and the second Accord hit a separate, non-Google-owned Prius.

The problem is that the facts are vague and Google is not going to release the accident report.  Someone was behind the vehicle of the Google vehicle, but it is unclear who was in control at the time of the accident.

That is where the question of responsibility comes into the picture.  Weinberger summarizes the issue nicely in his closing paragraph:

And this incident raises other interesting questions, regardless of whether it was Google or a human at the wheel: if a driverless car gets into an accident, is it considered negligence on the part of the person in the front seat? After all, you can’t give a computer a court summons, and having the car drive itself is a pretty solid impetus for taking your eyes off the road.

Regardless of any criminal questions, civil courts were established to deal with torts, personal “wrongs and injuries,” to establish who was at fault, who should be compensated, and what the level of compensation should be.  The point of Hot Coffee was to demonstrate how successful big money has been in blunting the power of civil courts, if not evading their authority entirely.  However appealing the concept of the driverless car may be, ultimately it is yet another way to evade responsibility through the alleged objectivity of technology.  The consequences can be very ugly, but this is hardly the first time that Google’s quest for novel technology has led to ugly consequences.

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