As software and sensors take greater control of our vehicles, the insurance market faces a growing headache. Who takes the blame for an accident caused by a driverless car – the person behind the wheel or the systems controlling the car?
Technology may again provide part of the solution through improved monitoring of both the car and ‘driver’. We could also see the emergence of specialist niche companies to manage claims attribution. They would determine whether the logic or manufacture of the autonomous vehicle itself caused an accident, or if it was a result of bad data or information sources.
Undoubtedly, there will be incidents in which drivers retain liability, for example if they do not effectively maintain the car or update its systems. So what happens if the car does not have its latest update when it knocks someone over? How can this liability be priced into insurance?
There are more questions around operating parameters. In a vehicle with multiple occupants, does one person need to nominate themselves as the driver? If so how do we square that responsibility with the opening up driverless transport to the elderly or disabled – one of the perceived big advantages of driverless cars? Do they have to pay a higher premium because of their reduced capability?
The issue of liability presents a minefield for insurers and drivers alike. For example, if one route was perceived as higher risk than another, should the car warn the driver they are increasing their liability, or should the insurer charge extra for making that journey? Perhaps the car would refuse to move until the requisite insurance was in place, but what happens if the journey was an emergency dash to hospital?
The benefits of automating driving are so compelling that we have to address these fundamental questions of liability early in its evolution. The general principle of liability shifting from the human to the machine as the vehicle assumes control is sound, but it is never going to be entirely straightforward.
Manufacturers operate globally and many liability issues will require a global consensus. While we would prefer to answer all these questions rather than merely pose them, the insurance industry and legislators around the world need to far more precisely define exactly what “liability” means.