Maria Assunta Cappelli

cappelli maria assunta   

Ph D in Private Law

Faculty of Law

University of Trento



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PH. D Research program (TITLE AWARDED IN 2015)


Automation and liability: smart cars



Nowadays science and technology offer us artificial intelligence (AI) 'embodied' in robots. They are able to self-learn, self-organize and self-reproduce, thanks to genetic algorithms, artificial neural networks and other tools. The focus of this research includes  results from the diffusion of a social phenomenon consisting in the application of robots in the most disparate realities (industrial and domestic).

Robotics is the AI branch whose aim is to build machines that are able “to feel, to think and to act”. A robot is a complex system that integrates many AI results: such as vision, natural language, study of the movement, communication, machine learning, and knowledge representation and planning. Robotics presents a fascinating and unexpected scenario. Everything we have seen until now - cars, computers, mobile phones and internet - is an AI product and robots in a near future will be used in factories, in yards, in offices, and they will work as nurses in hospitals and in households.

The development of robots raises new ethical, legal and social issues, such as the allocation of civil liability when a robot harms a human being. If software agents can process and take decisions autonomously who will be held liable in case of harmful consequences of these decisions? The manufacturer, the programmer, the owner, or other subjects? The answer is far from being settled.

We propose three levels of automation (automation, semi and full autonomous) to deal with these problems. So we can evaluate the technological impact on legal categories and we will offer solutions to ensure both consumer safety and technological innovation.

First, we have to define a robot. Then we have to analyse causality. Finally we have to understand which scheme of liability to apply. Our interest is not only in liability but also in safety issues (including standard, testing and certification). Automated devices are efficiently regulated with regards to both civil liability and safety; however more specific regulations are needed for what concerns intelligent devices with a higher degree of autonomy, whether they are already available on the market or still undergoing testing, such as shuttles without drivers, robot-assistant, cars and self-driving industrial vehicles.

Automated systems present a problem related to the verification of liability in case of malfunctioning, since they were created with the collaboration of several subjects, whose roles are different but complementary. In case of a system malfunction, the issue around liability arises: whether is it to be ascribed to that person or to those people who built the background knowledge, or to those who designed the inferential engine. It should also be considered whether there is a concurrent liability of the final user, who should or could have noticed the system mistakes. Semi-autonomous systems (those still requiring human intervention in order to work) and autonomous systems give rise to the issue of creation and management, because as robots they are able to move, react to certain circumstances, reprogram themselves in order to respond to certain stimuli and to solve certain situations: these new abilities give rise to new questions in the field of law and generate uncertainty about the application of the traditional categories. In that regard, the impact of technology on the legal field can be investigated in order to factually evaluate the dichotomy of solutions and concepts elaborated by the Anglo-American and the Continental European systems.

The aim of the present research is to verify the impact of technology on the traditional categories of law (limiting however the field to the remedies used) that can be ascribed to the robot's activity, to reveal whether they are suitable or no, and finally to propose legal solutions that may play an important role before the introduction and wide diffusion of such devices on the market. A comparison with other legal orders, that adopted other legislative and regulatory solutions about this issue, may prove helpful to determine the exact limits of automation artifacts and of the management of the issues related to the safety rules required for these intelligent systems considering also the liability system in case the devices are involved. Robotic research is, indeed, a continuously evolving field and technological solutions may have an impact on the legal field not only affecting the contents and the proportions of the traditional categories (of the private sector in this case), but also offering  legal-friendly tools to solve specific legal issue.

The case of smart cars represents the specific part of the thesis, because in this field the three categories of intelligent systems are found and all of them are interested by the same legal issues exposed in the general part. In some American states driverless cars are under the control of an early regulation implemented to allow the circulation of autonomous vehicles on the streets.