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Where Does Liability Lie in Collisions Involving Self-Driving Cars?

August 7, 2018

If you’re in a self-driving car operating in autonomous mode and involved in a collision, you’re not liable, right?

self-driving technology
CCIG President and COO T. Scott Kennedy.

Actually, for now and undoubtedly for years to come, that’s probably more wrong than right.

It’s true that, spurred on by Tesla and Google, many auto manufacturers today are researching and developing advanced self-driving car technologies. And, yes, it’s foreseeable that self-driving cars will eventually shift some of the liability away from drivers and onto automakers and their product liability policies. But we’re still a long way off from that point, and, in many ways, may be better off sticking with the insurance system we now employ.

Here are the two biggest reasons why:

First, switching to a product liability approach vs. auto insurance would lead to long delays in the time by which accident victims’ claims are resolved.

Sure, autonomous vehicles, or AVs, will help reduce the number of accidents, injuries and lives lost. But going the product liability route means victims would be forced to pursue what promise to be complex, lengthy lawsuits. Such lawsuits typically drag on for years before anyone sees their day in court. Just think of Takata Corp.’s defective airbag and the years it took before those victims received any compensation.

Furthermore, the sheer number of collisions and attendant lawsuits alone would bog down our already overburdened civil court systems. Again, victim compensation, if it happens at all, could take years.

Auto insurers will, of course, need to make some adjustments in their pricing and underwriting in a world that includes both human drivers and self-driving cars. But it’s hard to imagine that product liability coverage would ever deal with issues such as a car owner’s responsibility to change worn tires or replace the brakes on their vehicles, let alone theft or weather damage.

Secondly, some big advances remain to be made in AV technology.

Self-driving technology is, of course, already a reality, and it’s improving every day thanks to machine learning and owner input. But how far along are we, really?

The 5 Levels of Self-Driving Technology

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are five levels of non-automated and automated vehicles.

Level Zero is the non-automated car, where you and I do all the driving.

In Level 1 cars, an advanced driver assistance system, or ADAS, can sometimes assist us with either steering or braking/accelerating, but not both simultaneously.

In Level 2 cars, the vehicle’s ADAS can itself control both steering and braking/accelerating simultaneously under some circumstances. However, the driver must continue to monitor the driving at all times and perform the rest of the job of driving.

In Level 3 cars, an Automated Driving System (ADS) can perform all aspects of driving under some circumstances, but the driver must be ready to take back control at any time when the ADS requests the driver to do so.

In Level 4 cars, the ADS can sometimes do all the driving, and so the driver does not need to pay attention during those periods.

In Level 5 cars, the ADS on the vehicle can do all the driving under all circumstances, and the human occupants are just passengers and never need to be involved in driving.

In other words, actual self-driving cars are those classified as Level 4 or Level 5 automated vehicles. But the automakers, including Tesla, are still far from releasing such advanced AVs and it will many years more before the roads have more AVs than the cars.

All of this, thus, leads us to just one conclusion: Drivers are likely be found liable for their negligent driving for a long time to come, with auto insurers continuing to do the job of indemnifying them.

    Scott Kennedy, president and COO of CCIG, has more than 30 years of insurance and risk management experience.

CCIG is a Denver-area insurance brokerage with the full-service capabilities of a national brokerage. We do more than make sure you have the right policy. We also help you manage your long-term cost of risk with our risk and claims management expertise and a commitment to service excellence.

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