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Driverless Cars – Where Will Liability Lie?

By 2nd September 2017No Comments


February, 16, 2016
Malcolm Henké, Head of the Large & Complex Injury Group, considers the liability challenges of driverless vehicles.

It is one of those issues that has been bubbling away for some time but suddenly seems to be coming to the boil: what will be the impact of driverless cars?
What may have started out as science fiction is rapidly approaching reality. Indeed, Google recently published a letter it had received from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) which said the driverless system could be given the same legal definition as a real human driver.
This puts the spotlight firmly on liability.
The document said: “If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the driver as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving.”
Whilst not all drivers will view their vehicle as a lethal weapon, that is what it is. The number of recorded accidents each year is testimony to how many mistakes are made by some of those drivers. Add to those the minor bumps and scrapes that go unrecorded and it can be seen how risky road travel really is.
Exacerbating factors may be age: the inexperienced, young driver and the older driver whose reactions are not what they once were; those who choose to ignore common sense and drive whilst using a mobile phone or other hand-held device; and of course drivers under the influence of drink or drugs whose very state of mind leads them to believe that they are indestructible.

The driverless car is the same lethal weapon but by putting control of it into the ‘hands’ of a computer are we removing the real source of risk? The answer must surely be that once the technology has been tested and is proved to be sufficiently robust we will all be safer if the human factor is removed from the equation.
Two problems, however, loom large to spoil this vision.
The first is the transitional phase during which both driverless and driven cars occupy the same roads. This cynic guesses that when civil liability is investigated the machine will come out on top in a majority of cases but it could be an interesting and lengthy period. There will also inevitably be failures of technology. Responsibility for such events must lie with the manufacturers or those responsible for maintenance but how easy will that be to prove?
The second is the attitude of the driving population to being deprived of the pleasure of driving. That time must surely come, if safety, rather than pleasure is to push this development forward. However, it could be a politically difficult set of laws for a government to introduce.
Clearly there’s much work that still needs to be done before we see driverless cars on normal roads. But this may be a good time to buy up any disused airfields or similar parcels of land that are on the market. At some time in the future there could be a huge opportunity to offer people the chance to enjoy the ancient pastime of ‘real driving’. And Chris Evans will probably be out of a job!

Tim Kelly

Tim is a highly qualified Independent Engineer with over 20 years experience as an Engineering Assessor of damaged vehicles.

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