The Ontological Status of the Driver – or why we need to change the law

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In the debate on autonomous cars, one document keeps popping up: The Vienna Convention for Road Traffic from 1968, which is ratified across Europe. Most debators point to article 8 in zeroing in on the legislative hinderance to deploying autonomous systems to our roads.

I am actually a big fan of article 8. In my opinion, the real problem lies in article 1, and here is why.

Article 8 basically states two things:

  1. The driver should have knowledge of the vehicle in question

  2. The driver should have control of the vehicle in question.

Both of these stipulations make a lot of sense. But when we take a closer look things get a little blurry.

What kind of knowledge do we actually have about our vehicles? We normally presuppose that taking a driver’s license involves some kind of theoretical knowledge about what an engine is, how how brakes and instruments work, etc. But in reality, our knowledge of the vehicle is often very limited. I know that if red lights appear on my dashboard I have to pull over and call a mechanic. The mechanic will run diagnostic program after which the computer tells him what the car perceives as a problem, and he can then relay the message to me. So in reality, knowledge of the vehicle is highly distributed, and thoroughly dependent on computer systems.

What kind of control do we have, then? In a technical sense, control is understood as mastery of energy. When running this means controlling energy from the engine to the wheels, and when stopping this means controlling energy from the wheels to the brakes. But in reality, again, those controls are highly distributed and computerized. In both going and stopping the flow of energy of is controlled by computers way beyond my detailed understanding and control.

Knowledge and control are shared by humans and computers. If we can accept this fact of reality, the “driver” is simply understood as a combination of human and systemic controls, article 8 stays intact, and we can all move on. But this is where article 1 enters.

Article 1 clearly states that a driver is a person and this is the real problem.

It means that a person – and ONLY a person – can perform in the role of a driver. This stipulation obviously has deep legal consequences, e.g., concerning liability. But from a practical point of view this position is untenable.

The reality is that even today the notion of a driver (of knowledge and in control) is a distributed entity where a person alone cannot be said to meet the requirements. Looking ahead, this also implies that even a system with far more knowledge than the average license seeker and with superior driving skills will not be able to obtain a license for the road. Why? Because only persons are eligible for such a license. To me that does not make sense.

Will someone PLEASE rewrite article 1 to reflect what we actually want on our roads?

We owe it to ourselves and to our children to build better and safer transportation systems, and right now that means: discontinue the obsolete legacy law in favor of real world solutions that ensure safety inside and outside of our cars.



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