Virtually everyone seems to agree that driverless cars will dominate our roads ten to twenty years from now. After all, that seems inevitable given the number of brainiacs at Tesla, Google and other car manufacturers. But what if these self-driving cars cause an accident? Are you to blame, or is a Silicon Valley programmer? According to Andre Janssen, it’s important to shift into action for the necessary changes quickly.Janssen, professor of Civil Law at Radboud University, argues that although driverless cars still seem far off, we really need to think about the legal implications if we want to be well-prepared when the time comes. “Artificial intelligence is already here. It’s not an exotic research area that won’t affect the real world until some years down the road.” The first partially self-driving cars are already in showrooms, and big companies like Google and Tesla are hoping to produce fully autonomous vehicles within a few years.SafetyFor now, liability law is clear: the owner of the vehicle is responsible in the event of an accident. That makes sense, certainly until we have fully driverless vehicles. The computer may take over the steering wheel for a while, but ultimately we’re still the ones behind that wheel. This situation may change rapidly in the coming years, however: there comes a tipping point when we’ll no longer see ourselves as drivers, but as passengers. And expectations will be different. “If I’m in a taxi, I'm not liable,” Janssen points out. “We have to keep asking ourselves and car manufacturers how secure we expect to feel in our driverless cars.”After all, we don’t expect perfection from other road users. It would be nice if everyone drove without making mistakes, but the reality is different. “There’s no such thing as perfect driving, even with driverless cars,” warns Janssen. “Isn’t ‘better than what we have now’ good enough in most situations?”Lower premiumsThis doesn’t mean that there aren’t some difficult issues still to be resolved, especially in criminal law. Should Elon Musk go to jail because your car knocked someone over? And if your autonomous vehicle exceeds the speed limit, who should the authorities send the fine to? “For the time being, we can only respond to dilemmas of this kind with the laws and rules that already exist. We’ll soon discover whether that is enough.”Are horror scenarios, in which we humans are blamed for mistakes made by robots, all that we can imagine? No, there are advantages as well. “I can imagine that insurance premiums will have to go down in the future,” says Janssen. “If self-driving cars means fewer accidents, there is less damage to be compensated for, and the current premium prices will be increasingly hard to justify.”Quick shiftsJanssen foresees a chain reaction once driverless cars become more common, with each shift in one link having a significant impact on another. If car insurers are going to claim for damages from manufacturers, a company like Tesla may decide to set up its own insurance company. Governments may change their traffic policies, laws will have to be revised and companies will opt for new revenue models. In short, many changes are expected in the upcoming decades.There are interesting times ahead for lawyers working at the crossroads of law and artificial intelligence. Although the law may appear solid and unwavering from a distance, in reality there is plenty of room for uncertainty. Each new situation, including impending driverless cars, must be tested against the existing law. Through think tanks, debates and trial cases, we will discover how the law is prepared for the new situations that technology has created.You have a part to playOur society is facing major challenges. Radboud University wants to contribute to a healthy, free world with equal chances for everyone. With ‘Je bent nodig’ (You have a part to play), Radboud University aims to reach people who want to contribute to that goal. At Jebentnodig.nl you’ll find more articles and a link to our job opportunities.Do you want to be kept updated of our articles? Register at Radboud Recharge.Image by Roberto Nickson via Pexels.