Automakers Shouldering AV Collision Liability not Consumer Free Pass

Carmakers taking responsibility for driverless technology that goes wrong should not be a carte blanche for the consumer’s personal responsibility.

That’s the view of automotive safety specialist, Thatcham Research, in response to Mercedes-Benz announcement that it will accept legal responsibility for collisions that occur in cars fitted with an Level 3 Automated Lane Keeping System, when directly caused by a fault with its technology but not when the driver has “failed to comply with their duty of care”. The German automaker joins Volvo is pledging to underwrite its autonomous technology looking forward to a world dominated by the technology.

While Thatcham’s chief research strategy officer, Matthew Avery, welcomes the move towards accelerating automated driving, he stressed the “complex and nuanced” issue of legal liability for the first iterations of the technology. Avery explained: “It’s too crude to suggest that the carmaker should be liable in all circumstances; there will be times when an accident is and isn’t the carmaker’s responsibility.

“What is apparent in the case of Mercedes, the first to have approval, albeit in Germany, for technology that will allow drivers to disengage and do other things, is that when the automated system is in control, the carmaker will be liable. What’s less straightforward is an accident that occurs when the driver has failed “to comply with their duty of care”, for example when refusing to retake control of the car when prompted.”

Automakers have long been wary of the hand-over period involved in both Level 3 and Level 4 systems where a grey area exists in the communication between human and machine. Avery continued: “It will be incumbent on carmakers to ensure drivers of their cars are confident, comfortable and have a strong grasp of their legal responsibilities which, in the UK, would be in accordance with the Road Traffic Act. Absolute clarity is required for drivers in terms of their legal obligations behind the wheel and their understanding of how the system operates, especially during a handover from system to driver. This is challenged by the fact that a driver can take a long time to come back ‘into the loop’ after extended periods of effectively being chauffeured by the system.”

Thatcham says it is currently leading the development of a consumer safety rating to support the safe adoption of automated driving systems. Funded by government organisation Zenzic and in co-operation with Connected and Automated Mobility (CAM) Testbed partners, the rating could give UK motorists and insurers greater clarity around relative performance and safe use of automated technology.

It aims to be the first of its kind in the world to independently rate the performance of the autonomous driving systems and combine virtual and physical testing. The rating will consider a variety of factors, including how handover from system to driver is managed and how carmakers market and communicate with motorists about their obligations for safety.

Thatcham also worked with the Law Commission on its recent report recommending the introduction of a new Automated Vehicles Act to ensure the safe adoption of vehicles with self-driving capability. Avery concluded: “Insurance claims will require scrutiny, so the provision of data to help insurers understand who was in control of the vehicle at the time of an accident, system or driver, will also be vital. Trust will diminish if confusion reigns and drawn-out legal cases become common, hampering adoption of the technology and the realisation of its many societal benefits. Fostering consumer confidence and trust in the first iterations of Automated Driving is paramount. This is where independent consumer rating will have an important role to play in driving safe adoption by making people aware of systems that are not as good as others.”

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in Europe. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

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