Absolving Users of Blame in Driverless Cars Could Accelerate Adoption

TU-Automotive’s editor, Paul Myles, reports that “British lawyers are calling for automakers to shoulder unlimited legal responsibility for a driverless vehicle’s actions on the roads.”

Subsequently, drivers will become users-in-charge, absolving human drivers of any blame for the “vehicle’s driving tasks in the event of an accident or breach of any highway regulations. As reported by the BBC, the UK’s Law Commission was asked in 2018 to come up with a series of reports on the regulatory framework for automated vehicles and their use on public roads.”

While there is an ongoing discussion about connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) liability in terms of who or what is responsible whenever an accident occurs, in a telephone conversation with TU-Automotive, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) was keen to point out that there are currently no plans to make automakers 100% responsible for accidents caused by one of their vehicles in semi or fully autonomous mode. However, there is still a discussion to be had about it and in, certain circumstances such as an accident caused by a technical fault when a human driver is not in charge of a vehicle, there is the persistent view that they should be liable.

Legal framework

Mike Hawes, chief executive of the SMMT, stresses: “The Law Commission’s recommendation does not make vehicle manufacturers 100% liable. In fact, its recommendation is rooted in the Automated & Electric Vehicles Act 2018, which provides a legal framework for insuring automated vehicles. It is, therefore, already written in law that should an automated vehicle be involved in an accident, regardless of whose fault it is, the victims shall be compensated by the insurer in the same way as today.”

In turn the insurer would then have the right to recover its costs, which would normally be assessed backed on an investigation that’s increasingly assisted by data. If found in the insurers’ favor, the liable party would be required to compensate the insurer. “This could be the Authorized Self-Driving Entity (which could be the vehicle manufacturer, software provider or fleet operator) as per the Law Commission’s proposal – should evidence point to software malfunction or other deficiencies for which the [accident] is responsible.”

Alternatively, whenever the vehicle is human-driven at the point of an incident and where no technical fault occurs, the liability party could still be that individual rather than a manufacturer. This would equally apply to traditional cars, for example, or to semi-autonomous vehicles that are driven manually. Another scenario could be a traditional, manual car being driven by a human driver found liable for driving into an autonomous vehicle; or the culprit might be someone who’s tampered with the sensors of a CAV, thereby causing a crash that would otherwise have been avoided.

Hawes adds: “The Law Commission’s recommendations will put Britain in the vanguard of road safety and automotive technology, by providing a framework for the use of self-driving vehicles which could save thousands of lives. The industry welcomes the introduction of Authorized Self Driving Entities, which can be the vehicle manufacturer, software provider or fleet operator, as the system of multiple checks and balances will give drivers confidence in the latest technology to make their journeys safer.”

Further discussions

A spokesperson for the Association of British Insurers echoed some of the thoughts from insurance companies such as Aviva. Malcolm Tarling, the ABI’s chief media relations officer wrote in response to an interview request: “We would like to have further discussions with vehicle manufacturers and the SMMT around data sharing. We support the development of autonomous driving technology but there do need to be clear definitions on the degree of ‘driverlessness,’ so that drivers know when they might need to take back control of the vehicle.”

The overarching message is that the topic of autonomous vehicle liability is one that the insurance industry is engaging, watching and listening to the conversation but it’s not one that most insurers feel able to comment on publicly for the moment. However, there is widespread support among carmakers and within the motor trade, as well as within the insurance industry, for the Law Commission recommendations which clarify that the user-in-charge of a vehicle in autonomous driving mode should not be liable for any accident or traffic offence when vehicle is legally driving itself.

Societal confidence 

Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer at Thatcham Research, which was part of the consultation for the Law Commissions’ report comments on the organization’s website: “Strong, independent safety assurance to build societal confidence, working in tandem with fast-moving and clear regulation is also essential to facilitating consumer understanding and adoption. It’s therefore reassuring to see that safety assurance, along with clarity around the driver’s responsibilities and liability should a collision occur, are key tenets of the Law Commissions’ report.

“The insurance industry and the ABI have been working with the Law Commissions for several years, and we fully support the report’s recommendations. We look forward to continuing to work with carmakers and the UK Government to ensure the safe deployment of vehicles with self-driving capability.”

Thatcham Research is working with the ABI on this consultation. It is also working with the UK government organization Zenzic to develop a safety rating scheme for Automated Driving Systems. The aim isn’t just to provide insurance cover and claims pay-outs but to also create a benchmark rating scheme for these systems “to reassure consumer that– when the technology is mature enough – it’s safe to hand over control”. Similarly, by clarifying autonomous vehicle liability consumers may also be safeguarded. Some degree of protection, through the ringfencing of liability as a result of defining where probable liability lies, may be afforded to automakers too.

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