Who’s to blame if a self-driving car breaks down? Liability in the event of an accident in the AV is suspended

MMost drivers are well aware of the unpleasant experience of assessing blame and handling insurance claims after a car accident. But what if an accident occurs and no driver is involved?

This hypothesis is fast approaching as the technology behind self-driving cars advances and countries around the world prepare for more automation on the roads. This month, the UK unveiled a new roadmap to usher in self-driving cars by 2025. The plan makes it clear that the manufacturer of an automated vehicle (AV) – not the driver – will be held accountable accidents that could occur when the car is in autonomous mode.

“We want the UK to be at the forefront of the development and use of this fantastic technology,” said Grant Shapps, UK Transport Secretary. “That’s why we’re investing millions in vital safety research and developing legislation to ensure we get all the benefits this technology promises.”

The UK’s plan, which will consist of new legislation, comes as a patchwork global system of regulations emerges, with various countries adopting different policy frameworks.

France, for example, was one of the first countries to approve a national regulatory regime for self-driving cars. The policy, which is due to take effect in September, waives liability exposure for drivers when vehicles are self-driving. Germany and Japan have also legislated varying levels of liability protection for users of automated vehicles.

In the United States, regulation is fractured as policy-making has been largely delegated to state governments. This allowed liability concerns to remain rather ambiguous, with drivers sometimes being held liable. In 2019, for example, two people were killed in an accident involving a self-driving car. In January of this year, the man who was in the vehicle at the time of the crash was charged by the state of California with manslaughter, the first such criminal prosecution.

However, the US federal government is being pushed to create a universal framework for self-driving cars that will update regulations, enshrining safety standards and various legal responsibilities such as liability protection. In April, a dozen lawmakers sent a letter to the US Department of Transportation, urging the agency to develop a comprehensive federal policy for audio-visual vehicles.

“Removing barriers to scaling, such as outdated regulations, will accelerate the positive impact,” said Maya Ben Dror, head of automotive industry and new mobility at the World Economic Forum. “It’s no surprise to see the UK, a world leader in shaping inclusive audiovisual policies, issuing an insightful update on accountability.”

Automakers have also taken steps to address liability concerns. In 2015, Volvo announced that it would accept responsibility for its cars when they operate in autonomous mode. The Swedish automaker was one of the first major manufacturers to make such a commitment.

Proponents hope that with proper development and safety guardrails, self-driving cars can make the streets much safer for both drivers and pedestrians. The new UK framework allocates £34 million to more security research.

“Driver assistance systems, such as autonomous emergency braking and adaptive cruise control, are already helping millions of drivers stay safe on the roads,” said Edmund King, President of Automotive Association, an industry organization in the UK. “The ultimate prize, in terms of saving thousands of lives and improving mobility for the elderly and less mobile, is worth pursuing.”

Yet, as with liability protections, safety standards for self-driving cars are also instituted in more patchwork ways.

“Globally, there is limited consensus on how to define milestones for AV security, as the problem of defining security invariably becomes a function of the operating environment,” notes the Safe Drive Initiative of the World Economic Forum in its report. Create a Safe Autonomous Vehicle Policy.

Spencer Feingold, Digital Publisher, Audience EngagementWorld Economic Forum

The article was originally published in the World Economic Forum.


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