Driverless cars: What is the law, and where will they fit into it?

This article was first published by Computing and the full article can be found online here

Britain's first driverless car was revealed in Milton Keynes last month. Full public trials of the cars are to begin on pedestrian areas of four cities in 2017 as part of a £19m plan to develop autonomous vehicles.

While the UK Government is striving to be at the forefront of this leading technology, it needs to be sure that our laws address the specific legal ramifications that autonomous vehicles will bring. 

An amendment to the United Nations Convention on Road Traffic, agreed in April 2014, now allows a car to drive itself, as long as the system "can be overridden or switched off by the driver".

The requirement for the driver to be able to override the car suggests that a driver is still responsible for 'supervising' the driverless vehicle, which is merely delegated the task of driving. However, if the car is programmed to be autonomous, the manufacturer is surely responsible for ensuring the vehicle can operate in accordance with traffic regulations, and in dangerous situations such as bad weather conditions.

Furthermore, any underlying premise that a driver is capable of continuously supervising the vehicle is flawed and defeats the benefit of having an autonomous vehicle which is designed to reduce the 90 per cent of traffic accidents caused by driver error.

If, however, a driver is not expected to continuously supervise a driverless car then any responsibility that the driver does have needs to be clearly articulated in law so that drivers are aware of their legal obligations. Such clarity is going to be paramount in securing public confidence and keeping insurmountable numbers of traffic claims out of the courts.

So if there is a shift of liability from drivers to manufacturers, do our laws similarly need to shift to ensure that manufacturers are insured or capable of meeting any claims?

It's common for businesses to set up subsidiaries when trying something new and potentially risky, as that subsidiary will generally have separate liability protection so the parent company's assets will be protected if things go wrong and the subsidiary gets into financial difficulty. This is exactly what Google is alleged to have done according to documents obtained by the Guardian. Google has quietly set up its own auto company which Google used to modify and test its fleet of driverless Lexus SUVs.

If companies can set up subsidiaries, with little financial standing, to manufacture and sell driverless cars, it raises the question as to what happens if the subsidiary is unable to meet its liabilities under a road traffic claim. If the manufacturer becomes insolvent then will it be the innocent injured third party that will suffer as they will not be able to recover the due compensation?

The recent recession has demonstrated that neither car manufacturers nor insurers have bottomless financial pockets. If a manufacturer goes bust or the operator of the driverless vehicle is not insured, will an injured third party be able to seek compensation from a central pot of funds equivalent to that currently provided by the Insurance Regulator or Motor Insurers Bureau? Or do we need to impose new requirements on manufacturers to try and ensure they are capable of meeting such claims?

While liability imposed on drivers and manufacturers seems the obvious concern for the public, with a new, and arguably tougher, EU data protection regime currently being finalised, manufacturers will need to ensure vehicles only collect and process personal data that is necessary and in compliance with data protection regulations, for example, data relating to accidents. As the first few cases of driverless cars being hacked emerge, individuals are going to want to know exactly what data is held about them and where it is stored. Manufacturers will need to be prepared to answer these questions and demonstrate compliance.

Public confidence is going to be key in making this innovation a success. To instil confidence and ensure the practical success of autonomous vehicles, our laws will need to identify who will be liable in the event of an accident, what insurance is required and ensure the applicability of The Highway Code and other traffic regulations.

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