Who is responsible when a driverless car crashes?

The UK’s Department for Transport wants to see fully autonomous vehicles in use on UK roads in just two years from now. Given the vast amounts of technology that’s required to make a driverless car actually work safely, that’s a big challenge. LiDAR, car to car communication, infrastructure to support autonomous vehicles on our roads and even the legislation pertaining to who’s responsible if a driverless car has an accident are all still being developed.

Yet, driverless cars or autonomous vehicles are already being tested on UK roads. The streets of London, Oxford, Milton Keynes and other areas have seen driverless cars from Jaguar Land Rover, Volvo and University of Oxford’s Oxbotica, moving along them over past months in order to test how various elements of their autonomous vehicle tech responds in live situations. While car manufacturers work on the hardware and software needed to make the driverless car dream a reality, the UK’s parliament is still getting to grips with the laws that will govern their use, and misuse.


Autonomous Vehicles on UK Roads

Given the will of the government to have autonomous vehicles in use commercially by 2021, it would be reasonable to think that much of the infrastructure, legislation and technology needed for this to be achieved were already in place. The fact is, much of the existing legislation for product liability, negligence and statutory negligence will be relied upon for apportioning blame if something goes awry with an autonomous vehicle and causes harm or damage – at least in the early stages. Legislation specific to the safe use of driverless cars isn’t expected to be ready before autonomous cars are using our roads.Driverless_Car_Crash

At present, if you have an accident on the road, you stop the car, turn on your hazard lights, check for injuries and call the appropriate authorities. Then of course, you’ll exchange details with the parties involved, tell your insurer and give details of how the accident occurred.

For an autonomous car, the process will have to be different. The above system simply wouldn’t work if a driverless car was involved in an accident while transporting goods, children or returning to your place of work or other pre-programmed destination without any passengers at all. Even if you were in the car and not driving, would you be to blame?


Current Autonomous Vehicle Legislation

To date, the legislation pertaining to driverless vehicles is pretty sparse and there are more questions than answers. However, liability of insurers, accidents resulting from software alterations and missed updates, as well as the insurance company’s right to claim against the responsible party are covered in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018.

Details on how to apportion blame for an accident are still fairly sketchy and it’s assumed will be covered in the legislation we can expect to come into effect on or after 2021.

Questions such as ‘How long will owners of driverless cars legally have to install their car’s software updates? If an autonomous vehicle crashes as a result of a cyber-attack, malware or an undetected virus picked up by the infotainment system, who should be held liable? Will driverless car owners need third-party insurance and be required to install software protection programs for their car?’ are still being worked on by the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, and the Department for Transport.

While these bodies work on the legal points of driverless vehicles, drivers are getting used to semi-autonomous driving with optional extras like Mercedes-Benz’s Driving Assistance and Drive Pilot packages. It’s thought that these developments will extend the pool of just 27% of people who are actually willing to ride in a driverless car.

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