4 March 2019

Insurers move to safeguard drivers from blame for fully automated crashes

Drivers of fully automated vehicles, which could be on the nation's roads in just two years, should not be held liable for crashes involving their cars while the technology is in charge, the UK's insurance industry has said.

  • Self-driving cars could be on the roads by 2021
  • The insurance industry thinks drivers should not be held responsible if their self-driving car is involved in an accident.
  • Driverless cars could reduce the number road accidents, but the insurance industry warns there may be a difficult transition period.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) in conjunction with Thatcham Research, the motor insurers' research centre, has submitted its views to the Law Commission. It is helping to work out how the UK will incorporate the rules currently being decided internationally on standards for autonomous vehicles.

The Government is supporting the autonomous vehicle industry and motor manufacturers by ploughing millions of pounds into infrastructure developments and testing and has said that it wants to see driverless vehicles on the UK's roads by 2021.

It has been calculated by the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC), the Government-backed UK innovation centre for intelligent mobility, that the market for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) in the UK will be worth £28 billion in 2035. That value is based on technological developments and job creation in the manufacturer and production of CAVs.

Insurers stress that driverless vehicles have the potential to drastically reduce road crashes, cut delays and make it easier for people who cannot drive to get around. However, during the transitional years UK roads will feature autonomous vehicles and some being driven manually, and the insurance industry has warned motor manufacturers that they must not “rush vehicles onto the roads under the badge of autonomy when in fact they may still need human intervention at short notice”.

The ABI says that once vehicles can manage all road conditions and scenarios, giving those travelling permission to stop thinking about the driving task and do other things, it would be unfair to expect a driver to intervene if the on-board systems got something wrong or were unable to prevent an incident.

Therefore, said the ABI, until a vehicle could handle emergency scenarios without driver intervention they could only be considered to offer advanced driver assistance. In those vehicles, drivers would remain fully responsible for a vehicle and must be ready to take back control at any moment.

Establishing the point at which liability moved from the driver to the vehicle required a number of core things, the ABI has suggested:

  • A system to categorise which vehicles could be truly autonomous and which had only advanced driver assistance systems
  • Clear information for motorists about the capabilities of vehicles available to them so they understood their level of responsibility
  • Easily accessible and comparable data for all vehicles so insurers and the emergency services had the necessary information about whether a person or the vehicle was in charge at the time of an incident.

A working party on automated, autonomous and connected cars, part of the UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe), is in the process of setting out detailed criteria vehicles will have to meet to be considered autonomous. The ABI and Thatcham Research's response to the Law Commission's preliminary consultation paper on automated vehicles, also emphasises the insurance industry's high level of support for autonomous motoring given the potential benefits to road safety.

Given the timescale outlined by the Government for the introduction of autonomous vehicles to UK roads, insurers say they want to make sure the transition is handled as safely as possible.

The ABI says that cars of the future would need to collect a basic set of core data - a period from 30 seconds before to 15 seconds after an incident - to prevent drivers being unfairly blamed if the technology went wrong. That would include an indication of whether the vehicle was operating autonomously or not, and what technology was in use. That information would be used to: Establish liability for anything that had gone wrong, inform emergency services' investigations, ensure insurance claims could be processed promptly and help vehicle manufacturers improve their products.

Laurenz Gerger, policy adviser for motor insurance at the ABI, said: “There will come a point when the drivers of today are effectively passengers in a vehicle driving itself, and at that stage we want motorists to be reassured they won't be held liable for an error made by a vehicle or a piece of on-board technology. Standards being set internationally, and the way they are adopted in the UK, need to include strict requirements to ensure vehicles aren't rushed onto the roads under the badge of autonomy when in fact they may still need human intervention at short notice.

“Fully autonomous vehicles have the potential to radically improve road safety and insurers are heavily involved in the trials taking place around the country. A safe transition to automated driving requires clear definitions to help consumers understand their own and their vehicles' responsibilities, and data must be available in the event of an accident to help insurers and the authorities understand what went wrong.”

Matthew Avery, director of insurance research at Thatcham Research, said: “The future of motoring is extremely exciting and approaching fast. The life-saving potential of fully automated vehicles is clear, but it is important their introduction onto the UK's roads is handled carefully to guard against serious accidents which could potentially undermine public trust in this new technology. This also means reassuring the public that when the time comes, they will not find themselves being held liable for the actions of a truly autonomous vehicle.

“Until this time, there will be a mix of vehicles on our roads with different capabilities: some being driven manually, others automatically. So it is vital that we make sure they can share the same road space, and remain safe. Organisations such as ours will have an important role to play in helping ensure they do, whilst also helping consumers understand what is expected of them when they are behind the wheel.”

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