Government Clarifies Liability for Driverless Car Collisions

Driverless cars have progressed from a thing of science fiction to an imminent reality, with Google, Apple and even Mercedes Benz all committed to bringing driverless technology into commercial production.

But insurers have been concerned from the outset over who would be held responsible in the event of an accident: the driver or the car manufacturer?

Now the government has given some insight into how liability might be determined.

In a speech delivered by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin in the House of Commons on 19th May 2016, he indicated that new legislation would be introduced to enable driverless cars to be insured under ordinary policies.

“These new laws will help autonomous and driverless cars become a real option for private buyers and fleets,” he said.

A week after this, the government’s Roads Minister, Andrew Jones, said in a speech at Milton Keynes, “In the event of a serious collision when in driverless mode, it would be the vehicle at fault instead of the human driver.”

This would effectively place liability with the vehicle’s manufacturer.

Of course, some autonomous features already exist in cars – assisted parking, for example – but Mr. Jones delivered a prediction of rapid development of driverless features.

“The government believes that within four years it will be possible to buy cars that, under supervision, park on their own and pilot themselves on motorways. “Eventually, there will be virtually nothing left for the motorist to do.”

Overhauling the way car insurance is calculated

This kind of progression in driverless cars would involve a major overhaul of the way car insurance is calculated. Much of the current risk data is associated with driver behaviour, but the emphasis could gradually shift to factors associated with the vehicle as more and more elements of driving become automated.

Mr. Jones went on:

“Compulsory motor insurance will be retained, but it will be extended to cover product liability so that when a motorist has handed control to their vehicle, they can be reassured that their insurance will be there if anything goes wrong.

“Where the vehicle is at fault the insurer will be able to seek reimbursement from the manufacturer.”

Four years is a relatively short period of time for such dramatic modifications to take place. If the government’s prediction is accurate, the car insurance industry will be very busy preparing for the changes.

On a positive note, automated vehicle features are expected to reduce accidents (and by association, insurance pay-outs); could this ultimately be the trigger for lower car insurance premiums?

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