Autonomous vehicles: Who pays for the incidents and accidents?


We recently wrote an article on the ever-expanding production and development of autonomous vehicles. While we recognised that they are set to become one of man’s biggest technological advancements, it did prompt us to ask a question: if an autonomous car is involved in an accident, who is ultimately responsible?

Tesla troubles

Our question is one that we’ve previously considered, but not really looked into. This, however, has changed following the latest headline involving Californian automaker Tesla. The company have been in the headlines - mostly good, some not so good - during the last year with numerous updates and reveals that has almost made company founder Elon Musk become a real-life Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark figure.

The overall thought of owning an autonomous car is exciting; did you think as a child that you’d be living in a time where this would become a thing? But the sober question of responsibility needs to be considered. And this has become even more relevant this week following the latest Tesla news story, this time from the UK, where a Model S carrying three passengers crashed into a Mercedes dealership. The good news is that no-one, thankfully, was hurt, but as we’re already aware of accidents involving autonomous cars where the outcome has been much more tragic, this is alarming.

Who is liable?

The dreams and plans of self-driving cars may have started on a Post-It note somewhere, but they, along with how insurance and liability will be affected, have long since been part of the now huge picture of development.

In terms of liability, 2015 saw Volvo as being the first manufacturer to announce that they would accept total responsibility for any accidents that their self-driving cars were involved in, with Google also making a similar statement. The claims are to be applauded; huge organisations putting their names into the ring for potential blame? It’s almost unheard of. So, we might assume (rightly or wrongly) that they would want to be as close to 110% sure that their driverless cars are going to get their passengers from A to B safely, with no incidents on the way.

But can they ever really be sure? It’s currently unknown, for example, as to what the outcome would be if there was a fatal accident involving a driverless car; who would ultimately be responsible? Who, if anyone, would be punished and how? Imprisoning software isn’t really an option. After the latest headline, it’s more clear that technology, machinery and humans all do have one thing in common: they are open to errors. With insurance policies for autonomous cars currently still being a grey area too, simply getting into your shiny new driverless car and going about your business is still subject to debate and potential massive changes.

The future?

Autonomous cars are already here and creating a wave, both within the global automotive industry and the media. This we already know. What we don’t and won’t know just yet is how their evolvement and placement in our lives will ultimately affect the way we drive (or not), or what it may mean for the drivers of future generations. Will theory and driving tests become a thing of the past? How will the car insurance market and the law in general change? We’ve only asked the question around responsibility, but there are many, many more that still need to be asked and answered.

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