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What does this week’s Torah Portion have to do with Self-Driving Cars?

The longer we sit in traffic, the more time we have to think about solutions to gridlock. And one thought which seems to be on everyone’s mind these days is self-driving cars.

As the alphabet of car companies are looking at using radar and software to control our vehicles, we are left to wonder what the future may hold for us.

And, I’m sure many of us are also wondering, “Where do self-driving cars appear in the Torah?”

Other than the story of Balaam’s ass (where we learn that even a self-driving donkey can see more than the seer), this week’s Torah portion adds an interesting wrinkle into the conversation around insuring autonomous vehicles.

According to the Talmud, based on Mishpatim – this week’s parasha – there are four main causes of damage that we must worry about: Those caused by an Ox, those caused by a Pit, those caused by Fire and those caused by Humans. To make a long story short, when driving a car, we generally insure[i] based on the category of the Ox: There are oxen who are generally accident free, and there are oxen who regularly cause accidents. Woe to the owner of an ox who is known to gore, and who gores again!

It is not the ox that is ultimately responsible for the hurt – the ox is owned by the human and guided by the human. The human may even have to guide it carefully through the marketplace. And when there is an issue, human must pay for the damage done by the ox.

But what if the property has been programed to ‘never gore’ – and guaranteed by the manufacturer to be the safest thing on the road? It doesn’t even need to be led through the marketplace by hand but can rather take a human (who is shaving, reading the Sunday edition, and applying mascara during the ride) through the marketplace without fear of injury. When something goes wrong, who is liable?

When we shift from human controlled to computer controlled, is it the case of an ox, or more the case of a fire? With fire, it is not about fires that are known to burn and fires that are not known to burn – because burning is an inevitability with fire. Because fires are expected to burn, the responsibility falls on the one who created the fire to make sure that it is controlled and acts properly. This may be a more fitting framework – the one who created the hardware and software may be the ones responsible when they go out of control. (But for your own safety, keep your hands on the wheel, because it is still your body in the car!)

Our legislature and courts will decide as these theoretical conversations become reality, but it is reassuring to know that some frameworks for the discussion exist in our Talmudic texts and have been debated for thousands of years. And that we know that some of the basic principles translate into our legal system: to preserve life and make sure that all have some access to the goods of society.

In my class Edgy Judaism, we are looking at Judaism at the edge of modern innovation, Wednesday night at 7:30pm, we’ll unpack this discussion, and discuss the programming of these cars: what does Judaism say for the worst of cases when someone makes a mistake? Should the car swerve to save the driver, or the pedestrian?


[i] Insurance is a modern idea of risk-pooling, and does not appear in our texts, but can be read into conversations on farms and conversations on a community fund for those in need.

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  • Arlene Roth

    I always enjoy your sense of humour. Your comments in this Torah portion help make the Torah relatable to our current life. You can pass your thoughts on to the Ethics Commissioner of Canada.

  • Paul Kay

    A brilliant reading of the classic texts for modern time. Thank you.
    Now, into which category of damages would you put our lifestyles (i.e., us) and the resulting climate and environmental changes? I’d love to be in conversation with you, and the texts, about this.

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