The media has recently been awash with news that driverless cars could soon be driving on the roads in the United Kingdom. Although they are not expected to be in public use for at least another decade, the government is sure that these vehicles are going to take the country by storm. Various manufacturers in the UK are becoming involved with the industry and the government is keen to continue to foster the industry so that Britain can become world leaders.
In order for the United Kingdom to lead the way in the driverless car sector, the government has needed to take the initiative in creating legislation which will apply to these vehicles. One of the major questions which is being asked as part of this debate is who will be held liable if people are injured or killed in an accident with a driverless vehicle. Although some states in America have paved the way by stating that driverless cars will become the norm, a universal precedent has yet to emerge. Major stakeholders in the United Kingdom are still consulting with the government and the civil service to decide how liability laws should ultimately look.
Who would be responsible for a collision?
At present, there is still a lack of clarity as to who would be responsible if a vehicle was involved in a collision whilst it was operating under driverless mode. Many potential vehicle owners have expressed concern that they may be held liable if their vehicle crashes whilst it is not under their direct control. Therefore, some commenters have suggested that the manufacturers should be held liable for the any incident. This dichotomy forms the major crux of liability discussions in the United Kingdom.
A few major manufacturers, including Google and Volvo, have both stated that they would be willing to bear responsibility for accidents if their vehicles were being used in driverless mode. These announcements have been met with praise from many drivers; however other people have been sceptical that this is a PR stunt to try to highlight how confident the manufacturer feels in the design of their own vehicle. On the other hand, a primary function of a driverless car is to be able to operate properly without a driver being in control. If a crash occurs because the vehicle failed to meet this function properly, then the manufacturer should be held liable. This would follow on from precedents in other product liability cases, where products have caused injury because they do not perform their intended function properly.
Reducing accident claims and insurance costs
Some large insurance providers, such as AXA, have actually chosen to become involved with the development of driverless cars in the United Kingdom. They understand that these vehicles are likely to play a huge part in transportation in Britain in the future, and they would prefer to have more of an influence in the development process.
By being involved at this stage in the process, these insurance providers are able to have more of a say in the technology that may be used in the future. They are also able to give developers more of an insight into the issues that insurance providers might bring up in the event of an accident. This insight should help developers to create technology which will allow the insurance providers to clearly identify who is liable for the accident.
With semi-autonomous vehicles or near-autonomous vehicles, part of the difficulty will be to identify who or what was in control of the vehicle at the time of the impact. Insurers are encouraging the use of sensors and telematics which should be able to identify when control of the vehicle was handed over to the driverless system. These sensors should also be able to identify whether the driver had any influence over the vehicle at the time of the accident.
These sensors may also be able to record information about the other vehicles which were around the car. Fully autonomous vehicles and highly autonomous vehicles are designed to respond to the movements of vehicles around them, so keeping a recording of all stimuli could help to point towards whether a third party was at fault. It is possible that this would act in a similar way to the way that black box recorders operate in aeroplanes.
Finally, it is possible that the advent of driverless cars could result in a reduction of insurance premiums for many consumers. The majority of vehicle accidents are caused by human error, rather than because of manufacturing errors or road surface defects.
If vehicles are not directly controlled by drivers, the number of accidents which are caused by human error should see a sharp downturn and should reduce the number of car accident claims in the UK. Statistics have already shown that vehicles with autonomous emergency braking systems reduce accident rates by around 15%.
If insurance providers have to make fewer pay-outs, premiums should go down for all consumers so that the provider can remain competitive.