Driverless Cars: Who Is Liable For Accidents?

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In a month that has seen regulations, software enhancements, and a large-scale road test by Uber, media coverage of so-called driverless cars is reaching fever pitch.

Driverless Cars: Who Is Liable For Accidents?

September also saw one of the worst road traffic collisions involving an autonomous vehicle, as a Google driverless car collided with a commercial van.

With the UK roads likely to see driverless cars by the turn of the decade, Rose Gibson, Partner in Complex Personal Injury, explains how driverless cars could affect insurance premiums and answers the confusing legal minefield relating to liability for accidents.

Developments In Driverless Tech

Developments in the technology has seen ride-hailing service Uber roll out a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh this month, allowing users to request an automated car when they open their smartphone app.

Highlighting how long this technology has been in the works, companies like Google have been undergoing road tests for automated cars since 2012.

The culmination of these efforts is an estimated consumer release date of 2020, with Volvo aiming to deliver real-world self-driving cars to the British public by the end of the decade.

Consumers can already purchase cars with some automation, in fact half of new cars sold in 2015 featured some form of automation, whether that be simple anti-lock braking systems or the more hi-tech self-parking offered by the likes of Ford.

Alongside this constant march towards automation, there are very real public concerns about the safety of driverless cars, a recent study showed that amongst UK consumers:

  • 14.8% are very concerned about riding in a vehicle with self-driving technology
  • 33.8% would be moderately concerned about riding in a vehicle with self-driving technology
  • 36.8% would be slightly concerned to ride in a vehicle with self-driving technology
  • Only 14.6% would not be concerned at all of riding in a vehicle with self-driving technology

Safety concerns and a distinct feeling of lacking control are likely to the issues causing the most concern for consumers, however many proponents have argued that autonomous cars do not have to be completely safe, they just need to be safer than human drivers; currently, 90% of road traffic collisions are caused by human error.

Government Regulation On Driverless Cars

In a bid to remain at the cutting edge of this sci-fi inspired technology, many governments have tried to address rules and regulations on driverless cars early on, so that existing legislation does not hamper the development of these vehicles.

In the US, the federal government recently issued far-reaching guidelines that paved the way for driverless cars to hit American roads without a sea of red tape.

Closer to home, the EU have been rushing to introduce a policy amendment, so that member states are not hindered in their journey to adopt driverless technology.

Currently, 21 of the 28 EU member states are signed onto the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, which requires a driver to take control of a vehicle at any point.

Some EU nations have looked to manoeuvre around these rules, with Finland introducing an autonomous bus service that shuttles commuters at speeds of up to 40km/h (24mph) – there's no steering wheel on the bus, but a manual operator can press an emergency stop button, technically placing him in control.

In Germany, policy makers have looked to set a trend by becoming the first country to introduce a highway code that applies specifically to driverless cars, which aims to give mandatory instructions to driverless cars in instances where a collision is unavoidable.

The UK was not one of the member states to adopt the Vienna rules and is seen as a central European hub for testing and developing driverless technology.

There are non-binding UK guidelines that commit manufacturers to similar rules as the Vienna Convention, but government investment in the technology has seen a number of tests undertaken in the UK.

Currently, the British government are considering responses from consumers and relevant business leaders after holding a consultation on driverless cars and are expected to outline further regulations, and a timeframe for research and development in the UK, in due course.

Liability & Insurance For Driverless Cars

One of the key questions facing the automated car industry and the consumers who are keen to adopt driverless technology, is insurance policies for such vehicles, as well as where liability falls when a driverless car is involved in an accident.

In automated car tests on UK roads, being undertaken in Milton Keynes and Cambridge, drivers are required to be sat in the driving seat in front of controls, in case they are required to take over. In instances such as these, drivers would be liable in a collision, as it continues to be their responsibility to ensure that crashes are avoided.

Guidelines from the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) seem to suggest that future collisions will be policed in the same theory, as existing rules can be adopted for driverless cars.

APIL claim that the Road Traffic Act 1988 already outlines a sufficient legal framework for driverless technology, with section 145 of the Act stating that all vehicles must be insured before driving on British roads.

While the consultation claims that some amendments to the Act would be necessary, there is currently "no need to add a costly 'bolt-on' to compulsory insurance in the form of a product liability policy".

APIL recommend that an amendment is made for clarity, specifically to make it clear that partially or fully automated cars are covered by compulsory motor insurance.

In relation to liability, APIL claim that questions of such legal complexities should not be of a concern to consumers, as those injured in a collision caused by a driverless car should bring a claim under their motor insurance policy and the insurer should pay out on a strict basis of liability.

It would then be up to the insurer to recoup their payments by seeking costs from a negligent manufacturer; this is a system that is already in place for employers' liability with defective equipment.

Despite these clear guidelines from APIL, there is a wider conversation on accountability for collisions involving driverless cars and the European Commission are expected to propose new legislation for car insurance, which takes into account the nature of driverless cars, in 2018.

As Rose explains, placing any emphasis for personal injury on a negligent manufacturer could end up in a complex claims process for those injured in an accident involving driverless cars:

"APIL are expecting that the government may amend compulsory insurance requirements to the Road Traffic Act 1988, so that in addition to motor insurance, the owner must also ensure that there is an insurance policy in place that covers the manufactures’ and other entities’ product liability."

"Despite this, APIL's guidelines are clear as they suggest that accidents involving driverless cars should already be covered by compulsory insurance, as there are other cars already on the road with forms of automated driving technology – such as parking and braking assistance – and there is no onus on these drivers to purchase additional insurance."

"The issue with placing the onus of product liability on the consumer is the fact there could be a myriad of complex Consumer Protection Act arguments, as such it seems reasonable that where an accident involves a car with automated technology, the injured party should be compensated by the motor insurer on a strict liability basis; it would then be up to the well-resourced insurer to recoup damages from the at fault car manufacturer."

"With new regulations coming from the US federal government, and new rules expected from both the UK government and the European Commission, it is impossible to know how the legal landscape for driverless cars will change in the coming years."

"Policy makers will be careful by placing public safety at the top of their concerns, but they are unlikely to impose overtly strict legislation that could impose a block on innovation in an exciting emerging sector, which is likely to dominate headlines for years to come."

"I'm excited to be attending the Attorneys Information Exchange Group (AIEG) Fall Conference, which should cover some of the key questions over litigation and liability in cases involving automotive products."

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