Driverless Cars and the Law

26 May 2017

By Personal Injury Solicitor Jason Harries

We’ve heard that driverless cars are ‘coming soon’, but what changes might this lead to in terms of the law – for example, will people still need car insurance, and who is going to be held responsible for any road accidents that occur?

When Can We Expect to See Driverless Cars?

There has been substantial investment by various multinational car companies and technology giants into the development of driverless cars, and if some ‘tech enthusiasts’ are to be believed then our roads could feature driverless cars in the near future. Whilst the timescales may be the subject of debate, there seems little doubt that driverless cars will happen and that this will have a significant effect on how we go about using our roads.

Whilst it is likely to be many years, if at all, before we are all using such vehicles, it is generally accepted that there will be at least some driverless vehicles on our roads within the next 10 years. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) believe there will be some driverless cars on the roads by the mid-2020s. It is likely that any changeover to driverless cars will not occur overnight but will take place gradually, with incremental advances.

Driverless Cars and Road Safety

Some driver aids already exist to assist drivers and to prevent driver error, such as Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), lane departure warning systems, Active Cruise Control and Automated Parking.

The reason to switch to driverless technology is clear. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA), driver error is a contributory factor in over 90% of road traffic accidents and the sole cause in around three quarters of all road accidents. The assumption is that if you can take the prospect of human error out of the equation then our roads will become safer with less accidents and less injuries.

Of course, many people will be very nervous about entrusting their safety to driverless cars and their computer systems, which are also potentially subject to errors and flaws. There are even concerns about whether such systems could be susceptible to computer viruses or subject to ‘hacking’. Whilst these are critical issues, they are likely to be considered as obstacles to be overcome and are unlikely to prevent the further development of driverless technology.

Driverless Cars and the Law

The advent of this new technology, and the anticipated benefits it will bring to road safety, have been broadly welcomed. But there are some legal issues which need to be resolved to provide reassurance to road users if something goes wrong and an accident results.

Although the current driver aids can assist a driver in their ability to avoid an accident, ultimately in most cases where there is an accident, the driver of the vehicle will be found responsible as they still retain overall responsibility for the control of the car.

The use of driverless cars should reduce the risks of accidents even further. However, moving to a fully automated driverless vehicle will have the effect of potentially transferring the responsibility for any accident away from the driver, where it currently rests. This could lead to a significantly altered position in respect of insurance, and questions arise as to who should take responsibility for damage or injury caused, where things go wrong.

Currently the law requires that vehicles used on the road are covered by an insurance policy. This compulsory insurance requirement has been in place for almost 100 years. The law in this area is well established, and provides compensation for those who suffer an injury or loss as a result of another persons’ poor driving.

However, the position would change where an accident involved a driverless car as the occupant would claim they had no control over the vehicle, and therefore cannot be responsible for the damage that may be caused in the event of an accident.

The Government and insurance industry have been keeping this situation under very close review, and a number of proposals have been put forward as to how this particular issue could be dealt with.

A consultation document, entitled ‘Pathway to Driverless Cars’, considered the issues. In the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill the UK Government proposed that the default responsibility for any damage or injury caused will fall to the insurer who insures the vehicle, even where the owner/occupant was not to blame. The insurers would likely then recover the costs from the manufacturers of the vehicle.

There are exceptions proposed for those people who have tampered with the software on their cars or have failed to update it. Under the proposal contained within the draft legislation, insurers would not be liable for damage resulting from accidents involving driverless cars if the vehicle has not been insured. In those cases, the owner of the vehicle would be liable.

The law has yet to be enacted but the proposals have been broadly welcomed as providing reassurance to the public. However, there are inevitably likely to be ‘grey areas’ that may cause legal disputes, such as where software did not install properly or where cars have been modified by a repairer/garage.

It is also clear that whatever solution is eventually reached, there will need to be an adequate system of protection for those who, through no fault of their own, suffer injury or loss when using the roads.

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