Autonomous car dilemma and state sovereignty

Artistic view of an autonomous car and its lidar

In this article we will highlight a rather important issue about the legitimacy of autonomous car. We will specifically discuss the contradiction an autonomous car death dilemma could represent regarding a state competency.


Autonomous car: A self-driving car, also known as an autonomous vehicle or driverless car, is a vehicle that is capable of sensing its environment and moving safely with little or no human input (interaction).

Autonomous car dilemma: In case of accident, the question arises on how automated vehicles should be programmed to behave in an emergency situation. For example, if pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers are endangered, what should it do? Who should it kill?

Moral machine - MIT

To answer this dilemma, studies based on public choices have shown that there are geographic disparities in the answers (e.g. killing a young business woman or an old and poor man with his dog). It's a large debate dividing researchers between using deontology (strict written-out rules ), utilitarianism (maximized survival), or adapting the reaction to each situation. If you want to participate and give your own advice, click here.

State competence: The competences that are conferred to a State are proofs of its sovereignty. They can be defined as legal skills to exercise certain powers within its territory and over the human community attached to it. For this article, we will focus on the right to exerce repressive actions — violence — a proper competency of state (embedded into its constitution).

Idea shot:

Considering the fact that companies and producers of autonomous vehicles are the one parameterizing the answer to the above dilemma — who should the car kill in emergency — it pose a serious problem (in my own view) in the case where this emergency situation is meant to happen within a state.

Effectively, companies owning the right of life and death on passenger, drivers or pedestrians in case of accident, should at least be state approved or regulated (even if the dilemma answer is based on international studies).

We could consider to some extent that stating who could live or die should a be a decision normally reserved for the state. In France, the unavailability of the body is the principle that the human body belongs to the state and that all the state actions must be in order to protect it. If firms can decide the answer to the dilemma, the unavailability of the body would therefore be removed from the state. It would pose a problem regarding state sovereignty, concerning its role in population and human body protection.

Letting these actors do so — choosing themselves who should die in a state in case of emergency — would be a big step backwards in the role of a state, and thus this would be a state sovereignty lowering or transfer to privates company, because it would not belongs to the state anymore.

Open to thoughts:

Regarding possible escapes to the autonomous car dilemma, we could express some attempts, by:

  • The fundamental respect of the law and the highway code. The sovereignty of the state on its territory dictates the laws of conduct. Therefore, it is the one who is in violation who will be penalized. The bad side is that it does not take into account the individual. If he is in breach, be it a child, an old man, a disabled person, or a significant personality, he is likely to be killed. It could be unjust. Yet no one is supposed to ignore the law.

  • Establishing a model that takes into account priority parameters, such as age, gender, social rank, lowest number, health, etc. This solution would immensely lack of ethics. It would implies that the value of a life depends in particular on the social status and the health of an individual. In my view, this is an infringement of the various declarations ruling on the equality of each human being, states cannot let that be without saying a word. This solution would widen the social gap between the different classes.

The interest in using the law as a major penalty factor also helps to find a solution to the problem of liability in the case of an incident. Today, it's really hard to define the responsibility between the owner of the autonomous car, the manufacturer, the software supplier, etc. This poses a problem for compensation.

If this responsibility is placed on the law and therefore the state, the question of compensation can be addressed by insurance services. Regarding the situation, this could eventually result in different and legal ethical codes for each country.

For me, it is the lack of supervision by the law which disperses the shares of responsibilities.


Please consider that I'm not an expert on any topic, I'm just expressing my view.

License CC BY



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