Self-driving cars have come a long way from the days of Knight Rider and are, in fact, rapidly nearing reality. Bull‘s New Year’s offering shines the spotlight (headlights?) on a legal quandary that will arise in that reality: Who is at fault when a driverless car causes a death?
The vehicular intelligence/sentience in question is “E.J.” (faced & voiced by Robert Gorrie, One Life to Live) the prototype self-driving program designed by the programmers at Ejetto Technologies and conceived by its C.E.O., Ginny Bretton (Justine Lupe, Madame Secretary) after a traumatizing car crash in her youth. Bull takes the case despite the T.A.C. team’s cautioning that it’ll be hard to win because he believes that 26-year-old Ginny is someone who has the vision and talent to do and create great things. But first, he needs to convince a jury that she and her company are not responsible for the E.J.-driven car that killed one of their technicians, Adam Bunson (Joshua De La Cruz, White Line).
Fittingly, Bull’s first fact-finding conversation of the case is with E.J. him(it?)self when Ginny sends a car to pick him up. While being chauffeured to Ginny’s home, Bull chats with E.J. and questions him about Adam’s death which E.J. isn’t able to explain although he confirms that he was driving the vehicle that killed Adam. Bull notes some of E.J.’s linguistic behaviours, admires his stats-crunching, and does his best to sit back and enjoy the ride.
At their first meeting, Ginny presents as a young, enthusiastic, distracted genius. She has multiple revolutionary projects in development in her lab but points out that she spends the bulk of her energy on E.J., whom she admits she treats as human much of the time. She tells Bull that she had offered to settle with Adam’s widow, Erica (Isabelle McCalla, American Voices) but that this isn’t about money, it’s about revenge – E.J.’s life for Adam’s.
Discussing the client with the T.A.C. team, Bull describes Ginny as “loopy…half-finished sentence next to a half-eaten bowl of Count Chocula…” which can work for them but needs to be mitigated to avoid looking incompetent. Chunk takes notes to “lose the pajamas” in his makeover and Danny has the thumb drive Adam was using for E.J.’s update the night he was killed for Cable to go over. Bull wants to confirm everything Ginny’s stated about Adam’s actions because they should “never trust the client”.
At Ejetto Technologies, Bull and Danny meet Dean Poole (Curtiss Cook, House of Cards), Ejetto’s Financial Officer, and Carter Spinnell (Dan McCabe, The Blacklist), an Ejetto programmer who has worked with Ginny since the eighth grade. The two give vastly differing accounts of Adam’s contributions to the company but both point out that Adam violated protocol the night he died.
In Cable-land, the thumb drive has revealed that Adam did indeed overload E.J.’s system the night he died. Not satisfied with the simple answer, though, Cable has uncovered a bunch of junk code in the drive as well. Unfortunately, the encryption prove too tough for her (!!!) but she finds Sarcoma (Karl Jacob, Young American Bodies), an encryption specialist who is a desperate fan-boy of reclusive hack-tivist, GOLIATH918, and convinces Bull (because we haven’t seen him play dress up in MONTHS) that posing as Sarcoma’s hero will get them the goods.
A leather jacket, a staged introduction, and a smashed tablet later, Sarcoma is in a very compliant mood and quickly decrypts the junk code for them at super speed. Cable analyzes it and discovers that someone used Adam’s nightly update to create a backdoor hack into E.J.’s system, allowing anyone with the key to take control of an E.J.-driven vehicle.
In taking a closer look at Ginny’s childhood workmate, Carter, T.A.C. finds that the perpetually disgruntled programmer has a history of substance abuse and is constantly in need of cash. While staking out his house, Danny sees Ginny enter, a meeting which Ginny later lies about then insists had nothing to do with the case. When the backdoor hack tracks back to Carter, Bull and Danny zero in on him in an E.J.-driven vehicle only to discover him dead at the wheel, apparently from a drug overdose.
In many ways, this episode takes the trial out of the courtroom. The scenes in court are useful but don’t linger. The voir dire scene is brief and technology-focused. Benny badgers Adam’s widow on the stand enough to cause Ginny to leap to her defense, building sympathy in the jurors. And when Bull wants to combat technophobia on the jury, he convinces them to take a ride with E.J. driving. Obviously, this takes place out on the Ejetto course and he uses Benny’s very real, very visible, distrust of the technology to spur the more competitive jurors to jump aboard.
Back in the courtroom, T.A.C. loses some of their gains when the plaintive’s lawyer gets Dean Poole to explain that E.J.’s algorithm chooses the option that minimizes loss of life, even if that means killing the driver. Ginny retreats to her home to lick her wounds after it is obvious that the jurors don’t trust E.J. and it’s there that Bull confronts her with the death of her high school boyfriend, Evan, who was killed in the car crash where she was driving, the reason she created E.J. She still refuses to testify that E.J. was hacked, more concerned about saving the E.J. project than preserving her reputation as an inventor.
En route back to the courthouse for the verdict, E.J. glitches out and looks like he’s going to drive Ginny and Bull into the river but is stopped at the last possible moment by Cable. Shaken into the realization that she has conflated her memories with her invention, Ginny takes the stand and comes clean about the hack and how it caused Adam’s death. After the jury finds her not liable, she stops Erica in the lobby and the two reconcile in their grief over Adam.
Even the collaring of the true villain, C.F.O. Dean, happens outside the courtroom. And in lieu of our usual T.A.C. team hug in the closing scenes, we get a rather heavy-handed symbolic laying to rest of E.J. and then a tantalizing Bull tidbit as he phones someone named Amy, whom he had “left behind.” New year, new style? Can’t wait to see where this goes!
Bull airs Tuesday nights at 9pm PT/ET on CBS.