There is huge public interest in the issue of driverless cars with Rory Ceglan-Jones reporting from the driving seat of a BMW at the CES Tech Show in Los Angeles on BBC News last week. The huge investment of not only the traditional manufacturers but also the “tech” companies demands a regulatory response at several levels and the UK Government (with DfT leading) has been at the forefront of recognising the need to change, the opportunities of a safer motor environment and the economic opportunities that arise from encouraging the adoption of the technology.
Reports of fatalities apparently involving ‘driverless’ technologies have started to reach the news – for example, see here a recent article from Reuters.
So it was perhaps with some trepidation that I recently accepted a lift from a customer in his Tesla Model S, who then offered to demonstrate ‘autopilot’ on a 70 mph dual carriageway in Swindon.
Post reports that “Insurers could face becoming “irrelevant” in the age of driverless cars according to a survey of drivers” – see article here.
The rationale behind this seems to be that, according to a LexisNexis study, a significant proportion of drivers expect their cover to become cheaper (or that they may not need insurance at all) once driverless cars become mainstream and, as a result, driving safety improves.
The Government’s consultation about compulsory insurance arrangements associated with fully automated driving remains open until 9 September. It states that: “Our proposal is to extend compulsory motor insurance to cover product liability to give motorists cover when they have handed full control over to the vehicle (ie they are out-of-the-loop). And, that motorists (or their insurers) rely on courts to apply the existing rules of product liability – under the Consumer Protection Act, and negligence – under the common law, to determine who should be responsible.”
This blog looks at whether a ‘product liability’ insurance offering could meet the policy aims of ensuring (a) use of vehicles continues to be covered by insurance and (b) claims by injured road users continue to be adequately protected and handled quickly.
News of the first reported driver fatality involving an automated vehicle (while in self-driving mode) has broken in the USA.
Whilst understandably this is causing wide concern, and much comment, it is too early to reach firm conclusions about causes and consequences and any suggestion that this is or could be a “watershed moment” for automated and autonomous vehicles will be premature.
It does however serve to remind us that the highly automated vehicles being developed today are not “driverless”; even if the technology involved is very sophisticated, it is still just a tool for us to use and it has limitations that we – as fallible humans – need to understand.
“My ministers will ensure the United Kingdom is at the forefront of technology for new forms of transport, including autonomous and electric vehicles.” You may well wonder how the Queen could keep a straight face announcing this part of the Government’s legislative programme on Wednesday morning, shortly after having arrived at Westminster in a horse-drawn coach built in 1851 by the Lord Mayor of Dublin. Nevertheless, it is now clear that legislation to facilitate so-called driverless cars is to be brought forward in the current Parliamentary session.
Mankind can’t resist a challenge. As with the first landing on the Moon, it will be the same for driverless cars – we will get there eventually.
Where scientists, engineers and explorers conquer, however, big business and consumerism will follow and these days that also means internet reviews and YouTube videos. The court of public opinion and confidence has to be continuously satisfied – amply illustrated by one recent review of a driverless experience that said “…it seems that the future of driving is equal parts glee and terror”.
“We are liable for everything the car is doing in autonomous mode… If you are not ready to make such a statement, you shouldn’t try to develop an autonomous system.” So says Håkan Samuelsson, CEO and President of Volvo. A confident statement, also made in similar terms by Google and Mercedes-Benz recently.
The adoption of such a conciliatory attitude could lead to prompt resolution of liability disputes when motor accidents occur, and save insurers substantial sums in settling claims and effecting prompt recovery of losses. But the road to hell (or, in this context, court) is paved with good intentions.
As the arrival of driverless vehicles inexorably approaches, the pressing question for legislators, business interests and consumers remains: if there is an accident, who will be liable?
The chief executive of Volvo Cars last week declared that Volvo will accept full legal liability for an accident if one of its cars is in autonomous mode at the time of the incident. However, Volvo subsequently told the BBC that it would first require there was a flaw in their technology to accept liability.
Assuming any third party involved is 100% innocent, currently it is generally accepted that liability for an accident will rest with the driver, the vehicle manufacturer or the supplier of a software or hardware component. Then, as now, a common law duty of care or a statutory liability will apply according to the established cause of the accident – human error or product failure.