Prof. Guido Calabresi - “Driverless cars - Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Mobility” online-event

Guido Calabresi, professor emeritus at the Yale University Law School and a federal judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the United States, published a new book, titled “Driverless cars - Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Mobility”, along with Enrico Al Mureden, professor of Civil Law at the University of Bologna and Product Safety, Product Liability and Automotive at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia.

The book describes the scenarios and prospects stemming from the emergence of highly automated, connected driving. The key contribution of artificial intelligence will usher in an unprecedented mobility paradigm combining efficiency, safety, and environmental sustainability. Current and forthcoming problems, challenges, and at times tragic choices associated with the imminent “mobility revolution” are analysed in the light of the Law and Economics method.

The authors discussed the topic during an online event titled Autonomous driving - New rules of mobility between ethics, law and product development, moderated by Gianluca Pellegrini, Editor-in-Chief of Quattroruote and with the presence of Michele Crisci, President of Volvo Car Italia.

Initially, the speech focused on the evolution of the relationship between negative externalities and mobility in a future characterized by autonomous driving. Prof. Calabresi highlighted how most road accidents are linked to the human element. Thus, autonomous driving will have a direct and significant impact on the number of accidents. This also leads to an incentive to ensure safety for car manufacturers. Therefore, some rules will lose their importance replaced by a strong incentive for safety.

The problem arises in the transition period, i.e., the period of coexistence between semi-autonomous driving and the human component.  In such a scenario, there will be enormous regulatory confusion to ensure safety and consistency of standards. However, when fully autonomous cars will exist, there will be potential new negative externalities, but the present ones will be extremely reduced in favour of safety.

In the speech, automation is defined as a panacea that allows for a more efficient and safer environment. However, it is pointed out that there is always mistrust versus what is "new". Therefore, the recipients of such progress should be led to understand the benefits of technology, trust, and not focus on the few problems. Indeed, it is highlighted as zero risk does not exist.

Furthermore, Prof. Calabresi specifies that the negative externalities that can be reduced go beyond what is imaginable. For instance, in the United States, many people are stopped while driving under suspicion of doing something wrong. This often results in road accidents or other types of harmful situations. Autonomous driving will eliminate such a possibility.  The current negative externalities related to present individual mobility are enormous and most of them can be eliminated.

However, new externalities will arise. The emeritus Yale professor focuses on the so-called trolley dilemma. On the track, the driver is found in a scenario in which he has to decide if to kill five people, or operate the switch, and kill only one. This problem is currently solved by the human element of doing the best you can in a given specific situation. In autonomous driving, the software should be programmed to know what to do. So, choose how to intervene, for example, between the danger of killing an old lady or two children. Prof. Calabresi represents how this will be an ex-ante choice set in the computer and nobody would like to make this choice in advance. Indeed, when society is sure of what matters most, it is easy to choose. The problem arises when you need to make specific choices related to your values. In the young-older choice, the analogy is with the famous covid problem is found: who to give oxygen to if there is not enough for everyone? Any choice will never be fully and truly accepted or acceptable. We humans don't want to have such structured values to decide who to save and who not to. The software programming choice will cause various problems. If we choose to kill the old person what will happen next is that a famous old figure for society will be killed. The debate will arise again and the choice will be changed. There will be the need to come back to the choice over and over again. These are tragic choices, which Prof. Calabresi already discussed in a famous book.

Moving on to who should decide how to set these programming criteria, the professors returns to the topic of the Covid-19 vaccine. Who decides who gets priority? Who decides who gets special care? Each state has its own way. The problem is that too much clarity and transparency in this choice will lead to social problems. 

The moderator continues the discussion by querying on the possibility of having a common ethical denominator in the choices among different cultures. Prof. Calabresi points out that this is only possible in some situations. Each society can say what it prefers in a given situation. In all cultures, we have values that are incompatible with each other. In a given situation we favour one principle over another; in a different situation, the opposite. We have many values whose existence is essential to society but which are incompatible, and yet, we try to respect them all. Going back to the book “tragic choices”, in which the authors deal with Italy, England, and the United States, these States have some values in common, but also some profoundly different ones. This will also have an impact on autonomous driving.

In any case, the Yale professor specifies that the problem lies precisely in the fact that the situations in which society will be forced to choose will be minimized. Thus, there will be few choices, but they will be difficult to accept since they will be incredibly more ethically relevant. Calabresi highlights that we will have to try to make sure that choices are made in a way that is not too socially damaging: choices are hard, but they must be made to go further.

Lastly, the focus goes towards the status quo bias: the public tends to see only the flaws, so how do you communicate correctly? Prof. Calabresi highlights that people have to be put in the situation to understand what innovation brings them.  The status quo is always characterized by the fear that something will hurt you even if it is good for others. It is essential to find a way to make clear to citizens the idea that this innovation can do good. Therefore, progress is a specific turning point for all people who observe it correctly. 








Luca Megale
is a PhD Student at LUMSA University of Rome 

and tutor of the European Master in Law and Economics - EMLE (Rome term).