Self-driving vehicles, also known as autonomous or driverless cars, are set to become a feature on our roads in the future. These vehicles combine sensors and software to control, navigate and drive the vehicle. Fully self-driving cars are vehicles in which the driver is never required to take control to safely operate the vehicle.
Currently there are no legally operating fully autonomous vehicles on UK roads. However manufacturers such as Tesla, BMW and Nissan offer features that can partially automate the driving process. These include systems that keep the car within its lane, control its speed and keep it at a safe distance from the vehicle in front. According to recent media reports, fully automated cars are expected to take part in advanced trials on Britain’s roads by the end of this year.
Layers of Autonomy
Different cars are capable of different levels of self-driving and are often described on a scale of 0 to 5:
Level 0: All major systems controlled by humans
Level 1: Certain systems, such as cruise control or automatic braking, may be controlled by the car, one at a time.
Level 2: The car offers at least 2 simultaneous automated functions, such as acceleration and steering, but requires humans for safe operation.
Level 3: The car can manage all safety-critical functions under certain conditions but the driver is expected to take over when alerted.
Level 4: The car is fully-autonomous in some driving scenarios, but not all.
Level 5: The car is completely capable of self-driving in every situation
Though still in its infancy self-driving technology is becoming increasingly common and could radically transform our transportation system.
Who is Liable if these Vehicles Crash?
Recently there have been a number of tragic accidents in the USA involving autonomous vehicles. In March 2018 a pedestrian in Arizona was killed by a vehicle in self-drive mode. In the same month in California a car on autopilot crashed killing the driver who had taken his hands off the wheel for just a few seconds. In another incident “autopilot” failed to detect a lorry crossing the highway, resulting in the death of the driver.
The Government has introduced legislation to deal with this new technology on our roads. The Automated and Electric Vehicles (AEV) Act 2018 is now in force and it establishes that insurance companies are required to deal with all claims even when the vehicle is operating in automated technology mode. Insurers have a right of recovery against manufacturers and the right to exclude liability when the relevant individual fails to keep the appropriate software up to date.
The AEV Act is intended to make motor insurers strictly liable to pay compensation for injuries and losses arising from accidents caused by autonomous vehicles on the UK’s public roads. If it is established that a technological fault caused the accident, the insurers will have to compensate the injured victim or victims and will then have to seek financial redress from the vehicle manufacturers. In theory this should make it fairly straightforward for innocent victims of road traffic accidents to receive compensation. However things may not be so easy in practice.
A government statement from Baroness Sugg has confirmed that the AEV Act’s strict liability is not intended to cover Level 3 automation, which requires the presence of a fall back driver, ready to take control when required and who is capable of responding quickly to a system alert. This creates a grey area leaving scope for potential costly and protracted legal argument over liability between insurers, manufacturers, service garages, drivers and lawyers, probably at the expense of the injured road accident victims.
Clearly there are going to be some twists and turns in the road ahead for autonomous vehicles and it remains to be seen whether the government will deliver on its promise of automatic compensation for victims of automated failure.
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