Autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles are expected to fundamentally change transport as we know it by providing the opportunity to re-organize traffic and minimize unforeseeable human interactions. Nowadays, owners of the latest Tesla cars receive a large variety of driver assisting systems to improve the safety of car passengers and the road users around it, such as forward-facing radars. However, the car is not limited to semi-autonomous driving but is also equipped with a fully autonomous driving mode which can be manually activated by the driver. Although the autonomous system is still under development and lacks legal permission, the owner of the car has full access to this mode. Tesla states that it is not “yet” permissible to use this function without the driver’s supervision while at the same time, as the manufacturer, it gives every driver the option to use the autonomous driving mode by designing and delivering the car in a particular way. So is Tesla being negligent and therefore jointly responsible in the case of an accident that occurs during the use of the autonomous driving system? Does Tesla influence the driver’s decision-making and nudge him/her towards the irresponsible use of that mode simply by providing it? And if so, in what way does Tesla influence the driver’s decision-making process?
A car is an instrument which can not only harm its owner but poses an additional threat to other vehicles and pedestrians in its surroundings. In several respects, it can be compared to a gun. Now if the owner of a gun lends it to a friend who is not capable of using it or is not allowed to use it, and this friend commits a crime with it, the original owner can be accused of negligence: we would hold him partially responsible for giving away his gun. Since autonomous driving systems are not yet fully tested, and it is still unclear how they behave in extreme situations, it should only be possible and permissible that trained Tesla test drivers activate this mode. However, Tesla gives this possibility to the public by including these systems in all of its cars, rather than removing the hardware or software before the car is delivered, or only implementing it in testing cars. So in the case of an accident which occurs due to an unintended performance of the system, both Tesla and the driver should be held responsible. In the former’s case this is because the company already advertises the use of certain functions and gives regular human beings, who will very likely test these functions, the opportunity to do so.
Nevertheless, Tesla can legitimate its decision by stating that its cars are sold to mature and autonomous people in possession of a free will. The manufacturer therefore simply expects that the owners will not use those functions in any way that deviates from the terms and conditions — even if they have access to a technology that allows them to do so. In this way, it can put the entire responsibility on the owner’s side.