Who’s to blame when driverless cars have an accident? We can use the blockchain to find out

Driverless Ubers. Image: Getty.

The news that an Uber self-driving vehicle has killed a pedestrian in the US has made headlines around the world.

It’s a reminder that the era of self-driving cars is fast approaching. Decades of research into advanced sensors, mapping, navigation and control methods have now come to fruition and autonomous cars are starting to hit the roads in pilot trials.

But partial or full autonomy raises the question of who is to blame in the case of an accident involving a self-driving car? In conventional (that is, human-driven) cars, the answer is simple: the driver is responsible because they are in control. When it comes to autonomous vehicles, it isn’t so clear cut.

We propose a blockchain-based framework that uses sensor data to ascertain liability in accidents involving self-driving cars.

The parties to an accident

Uber has suspended self-driving car tests as US authorities gather data about the circumstances surrounding the accident, which involved a car moving in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel.

For partially autonomous vehicles, which still involve human control, assigning liability depends on what action led to the collision and whether it was based on decisions by the driver or the vehicle. For fully autonomous vehicles, the blame can be assigned to, or shared by, one of many parties – including the manufacturer, the service centre and the vehicle owner.

Manufacturers could be liable in the case of a design fault, the software provider for buggy system software, or the service centre for inadequate service to the vehicle. On the other hand, negligence liability might fall to the owner for failing to implement a software update from the manufacturer, or with the manufacturer if the accident could have been prevented by a human driver.

In this complex web of potentially responsible parties, how can the circumstances surrounding an accident be determined?

Sensor data can inform liability decisions

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are information-rich platforms thanks to the range of sensors on board that track, monitor and measure everything. Navigation sensors determine routes. Situational awareness sensors detect obstacles, follow lane marks and read traffic signs. And performance measurement monitors track critical functions like tyre pressure and oil levels.

It seems an obvious solution to consider data from the vehicle sensors for liability decisions. In the event of an accident, we can readily retrieve all the sensor data to reconstruct the scene.

However, the reality is more complicated. The challenge in this new ecosystem is that some of the potentially liable parties may also have disproportionate control over the sensor data. There is a risk that one of these parties may alter the data to steer the liability decision in its favour, using the wireless and USB interfaces that current vehicles already support.

That means we must not only record tamper-free sensor data, but also any interactions with the vehicle.


A blockchain-based solution can prevent tampering

Blockchain technology can ensure there is untampered evidence of the conditions of an accident to inform decisions about liability. The solution we propose uses permissioned blockchain so that only the relevant parties can record and access information from sensors.

These parties are split into two groups.

The first group is the “operational partition”. It includes autonomous vehicles, manufacturers, software providers, service centres and insurance companies. It records and shares a ledger with all relevant sensor data from right before and after an accident among all the participants.

The blockchain framework ensures that the sensor data and records of interactions stored in the ledger cannot be changed without detection. This provides a reliable audit trail of circumstances surrounding the incident, as well as any communication between the vehicle and the participating parties immediately prior to or following the accident.

The second group is the “decision partition”. It involves the government transport authority, legal authority and the insurance company. This group is responsible for making liability decisions based on information from the operational group.

The framework ensures individual vehicle owners remain anonymous to parties in the operational group. Only the decision partition has access to vehicle owner identities for final liability decisions. This contributes to maintaining user privacy while providing transparent and reliable liability decisions.

Sensors are everywhere

Using blockchain for trust in sensor data goes beyond driverless cars, extending to smart homes, supply chains and smart grids. In smart homes, sensor data can be stored in a secure blockchain to be used for evidence in insurance liability claims such as break-ins or fires.

Blockchain can also be used for storing auditable sensor data in supply chains so that consumers can trace the origin and condition of their products reliably. Finally, smart grids can benefit from peer-to-peer transactions in blockchain involving their smart meters for trusted and distributed energy trading.

The “internet of things” is growing exponentially, and has introduced billions of sensors into our lives, generating unprecedented volumes of data. Blockchain will deliver sensed data we can trust.

The ConversationThis technology is still under development, but with lives at stake when autonomous vehicles hit the road in increasing numbers, we must ensure that the liable party is held to account when things go wrong.

Raja Jurdak, Research Group Leader, Distributed Sensing Systems, CSIRO and Salil S. Kanhere, Associate professor, UNSW.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.