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Driverless cars: The legal concerns and what measures could be needed to overcome these challenges

Driverless and autonomous vehicle technologies are rapidly transforming the transport industry, offering a range of benefits such as improved safety, convenience, and efficiency. 

However, from a personal injury law perspective, the adoption of these technologies raises concerns regarding liability and accountability in the event of accidents. 

In this article, we will explore the current state of driverless and autonomous vehicle technologies, address legal concerns, and suggest measures to overcome these challenges.

Current position with technologies

Carmakers have been actively developing driver assistance systems (DAS). In an emergency, a driver assistance system can even take control of the car, some manufacturers say. Such technologies currently include:

  • Hill start assist
  • Road sign recognition
  • Emergency brake assist
  • Steering and lane guidance systems
  • Cruise control
  • Distance control
  • Speed limit assist
  • Lane-changing warning and lane-change assist
  • Parking assist

While these systems can enhance safety and reduce the risk of accidents, they don't eliminate the potential for errors or malfunctions. As a result, concerns already arise in this early phase of assistive technology around who bears responsibility when accidents occur.

Development of driverless and autonomous technology

As driverless and autonomous vehicle technology progresses, the future holds the promise of improved safety and accident prevention. However, legal challenges remain, particularly in determining liability in the event of accidents involving autonomous vehicles. 

When no human driver is present, questions arise regarding who should be held accountable. Could it be vehicle manufacturers, software developers, or even the vehicle owners themselves?

Before it's possible to evaluate such technologies, it's necessary to first understand driverless systems and how they operate.

There are currently five levels of autonomous driving with each level describing the extent to which a car takes over tasks and responsibilities from its driver, and how the car and driver interact.

  • Level Zero is No Automation - where the driver is in full control without any assistance.
  • Level One: Driver Assistance - this offers some assistive technology like stop-and-go, cruise control and pedestrian alerts.
  • Level Two: Partly Automated Driving - these are also described as semi-autonomous systems. For example parking assist and lane control function. They require that the driver remain in control of the car but are able to take over steering, unlike in level 1.
  • Level Three: Highly Automated Driving - this is said to allow drivers to completely turn their attention away from the road under certain conditions but the driver must be able to take over full control within a few seconds. It's reported that vehicles with this functioning have been tested on roads for many years.
  • Level Four: Fully Automated Driving - the vehicle will still have a cockpit/driver's seat but the car is able to fully control itself, with a human requesting control at any moment. A driver must remain fit to drive but is able to sleep temporarily.
  • Level Five: Full Automation - the vehicle can drive on its own without any human interaction. This phase is said to not even require a driver to be fit to drive or hold a licence. There doesn't even need to be a cockpit or driver's seat. This can open vehicles up to a range of individuals whom, under current regulations, are not able to drive.

Levels three to five are still currently undergoing testing but some car makers report that most of their cars today have at least Level One Driver Assistance, with many even offering Level Two. 

The Society of Automotive Engineering states that Level Three is anticipated to be rolled out this year. 

Next Steps - What do we need to consider?

Driverless and autonomous vehicle technologies have the potential to revolutionise transportation, but they also present legal challenges in the realm of personal injury law. 

Addressing these concerns is crucial for the successful adoption of autonomous vehicles. Establishing clear legal frameworks, defining liability, and promoting collaboration between governments, regulatory bodies, and the automotive industry are essential steps. Some of the main points considered include:

  • Responsibility: Determining who is responsible for an accident involving a driverless car is a primary concern. In the case of autonomous vehicles, the responsibility may lie with various parties, including the car manufacturer, software developers, or the owner.
  • Product liability: Autonomous vehicles involve complex and continuously improving/evolving technology and software systems. If a defect or malfunction in the vehicle's hardware or software contributes to an accident, questions arise regarding product liability. Manufacturers may be held accountable for faulty design, manufacturing defects, or inadequate safety features. Determining who is responsible for such failures, whether it is the software developer, vehicle manufacturer, or a combination, becomes a critical concern.
  • Human intervention: Many driverless cars today operate with varying levels of automation, as outlined above requiring human intervention in certain situations. The transition of control between the autonomous system and the driver can create complexities when determining liability. Issues may arise when the driver fails to take control when required, or when the autonomous system fails to alert the driver in time.
  • Legal framework: Existing legal frameworks may not be fully prepared to cope with the unique and ever-changing challenges presented by autonomous vehicles. Laws regarding negligence, insurance, and accident investigations may need to be updated to provide clear guidelines for determining responsibility in accidents involving driverless cars.
  • Data collection and privacy: Autonomous vehicles generate vast amounts of data, including sensor readings, video footage, and system logs. This data can be crucial for investigating accidents and determining liability. However, concerns may arise around data ownership, privacy, and how this information can be accessed, used, and protected.
  • Insurance considerations: The shift towards driverless cars requires rethinking insurance policies. Traditional vehicle insurance typically focuses on driver behaviour, but with autonomous vehicles, the emphasis may shift towards the technology and manufacturers. consideration is needed by insurers to adapt their policies to cover accidents involving driverless cars and determine appropriate premiums based on risk factors.
  • Legal precedents and legislation: As driverless cars are still relatively new and all models are not yet available to purchase/drive, there's a lack of legal precedent and comprehensive legislation addressing liability. Courts may face challenges in interpreting existing laws or establishing new legal standards specifically for autonomous vehicles. Developing consistent legislation and precedent is crucial for providing clarity and resolving liability disputes. Whilst in a transition period, this may also need to consider the interplay between a driver operated and a fully autonomous vehicle.

In a large step forward for liability decisions, one car maker has recently confirmed that it's prepared to ‘accept legal responsibility for accidents involving its cars when the system is engaged’ but that its ‘acceptance of liability falls within a limited set of parameters.’ 

It has stated that it ‘will only take the blame for an accident if it was directly caused by a fault with its technology. If the driver ‘fails to comply with their duty of care’ (such as refusing to retake control of the car when prompted), they will be responsible for the resulting damage.’

Collaboration needed to address concerns

Addressing these concerns will require collaboration between policymakers, automobile manufacturers, software developers, insurers, and legal experts. A comprehensive framework that considers these issues will be essential for establishing clear guidelines and ensuring accountability in accidents involving driverless cars, but this is likely to take some time as technology continues to develop and is adopted into society. 

Lawmakers  released interim guidance in April 2022, with a full regulatory framework due by 2025. Moreover, the government has confirmed that drivers will not be held responsible for crashes in autonomous cars; with this responsibility firmly placed on insurance companies.

This really is a watch-this-space topic.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people access specialist support and rehabilitation following a road collision at our dedicated road traffic accident claims section.