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Every road vehicle must have a driver able to control it while in motion. These requirements, explicit in two important conventions on road traffic, have an uncertain relationship to the automated motor vehicles that are currently under development—often colloquially called “self-driving” or “driverless.” The immediate legal and policy questions are straightforward: Are these requirements consistent with automated driving and, if not, how should the inconsistency be resolved? More subtle questions go directly to international law’s role in a world that artificial intelligence is helping to rapidly change: In a showdown between a promising new technology and an entrenched treaty regime, which prevails? Should international law bend to avoid breaking? If so, what kind of flexibility is appropriate with respect to both the status and the substance of treaty obligations? And what role should deliberate ambiguity play in addressing these obligations? This essay raises these questions through the concrete case of automated driving. It introduces the road traffic conventions, identifies competing interpretations of their core driver requirements, and highlights ongoing efforts at the Global Forum for Road Traffic Safety to reach a consensus.


© Bryant Walker Smith 2020.

Originally published in American Journal of International Law Unbound

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