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Robot Wars: With The Technology In Place, Inventors Examine Legal Hurdles

Apr 09, 2013 04:59 PM EDT

Despite their belief that self-driving cars are capable of being far safer than those driven by humans, the scientists and engineers behind robo-cars are concerned that their biggest threat isn't safety or even technology - it's lawyers.

Those engaged in the niche field met at a conference on Monday to give and hear lectures on many of these shared concerns, including product liability, patent encumbrance and design defects.

The belief is nearly unanimous among those in the industry: one bad headline about a programming error and the industry could be over before it ever really started.

What's more, the ideas, these dilemmas, are not necessarily just a matter of robo-cars: the more advanced robots become, the more liable they are to kill or injure a human. Should this be the case, the rule of "one bad headline" is once again invoked.

One thought bubbling to the top of these discussions, according to CNET reporter Declan McCullagh, is the enacting of industry-saving laws like those that currently offer a buffer of protection for the general aviation industry. The problem with this, however, is that the basic assumption is that such a move would be opposed by the plaintiffs bar, which also happens to be one of the largest donors to the Democratic Party, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Another idea is for manufacturers to limit their liability by locking down their platform - an idea called the "closed robot." The inevitable downfall here, however, is that such a restriction could stymie innovation.

Ryan Calo of the University of Washington law school proposes that Congress allow the kind of selective immunity seen in firearm manufacturing - an immunity that would only apply when "it is clear that the robot was under the control of the consumer, a third party software, or otherwise the result of end-user modification."

Similarly, Diana Cooper, a law student at the University of Ottowa, suggests that robot owners be forced to buy insurance and be prohibited from certain applications, including those that would result in the "sexual enslavement of robots."

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