Driverless cars have arrived

The Department for Transport recently published a review dealing with the testing of driverless cars on UK roads. We are delighted to publish an interview by journalist Alex Heshmaty with Matthew Claxson, senior personal injury lawyer at Slater and Gordon, taking a look at the various legal issues surrounding this developing area.

The government from February 2015 started a trial in Greenwich of a limited number of driverless cars that, if successful, will be rolled out to Bristol, Coventry and Milton Keynes.

This could herald the advent of a new age—a cleaner mode of travel, a reduction in congestion and improved road safety by reducing collisions caused by driver error.

But these technological advancements are being made at what sacrifice? Might the sheer sight of driverless cars be enough of a distraction to cause accidents?

Where, you might ask, will you see these driverless cars? You might expect driverless cars to be sharing the road with you. However, legislation has yet to be passed to permit the driverless car on the road. So, at present, they will use pavements. Many a pedestrian grumbles presently about having to share their pavement with joggers, cyclists and mobility scooters so how will the driverless car be welcomed?

We are told that the driverless car will simply require someone to sit in the driver’s seat but not be required either to steer or use the pedals as the computer navigates you from A to B. A sophisticated radar style system with cameras will guide the driverless car through obstacles. What happens though if the technology fails? Who is then liable for any resulting injury or loss to an innocent party?

Would the liable party be the person sitting in the driver’s seat or the car’s manufacturer?

At present, in a conventional car, it would be the driver who is in control of the car and therefore liable because that is how our laws have developed. For example—a passenger who pulls up the handbrake causing a road traffic accident is deemed to have, at that moment, taken control of the vehicle and become the driver and therefore liable at law for the consequences that follow.

How will our present understanding of the criminal law change? Who would be liable if the vehicle fails to stop at a red light resulting in a fatal collision—the person in the driving seat or manufacturer? Reflect on the above example of the passenger pulling up the handbrake—how does that differ where a computer has control over the vehicle?

What level of insurance will be required if the car has heightened safety? How will that impact the insurance industry which, as part of their motor premium assessment, considers the experience of the driver to whom they offer a policy of motor insurance? How will the motor insurer approach the dilemma of liability? Will the prudent insurer afford an indemnity to the person in a driverless car who has been involved in an ‘at fault’ road accident or will they seek to wash their hands of the claim by offloading responsibility to the vehicle manufacturer? If that were the case, would that leave the policyholder effectively uninsured and potentially facing a sizeable claim from a victim who may have suffered a life changing injury?

Furthermore, what happens if the manufacturer becomes insolvent such as the infamous DeLorean motor company? The last ten years have demonstrated that, in a recession, neither a car manufacturer nor an insurer has bottomless financial pockets. At present, if a motor insurer goes bust or an at fault conventional car is without insurance, an innocent injured party can reasonably expect for the Insurance Regulator or Motor Insurers Bureau to step forward to meet their claim—will such a lifeboat fund be available or fit for purpose for a driverless car?

Inevitably, you would hope for fewer road accidents. However, would the severity of injuries, including fatal accidents, increase because the person in the driverless car may not be in a position to react and apply a brake in an emergency, causing the driverless car simply to plough on along its pre-programmed route?

Above all, there needs to be clarity over civil and criminal liability for when things go wrong. The victim of a road traffic collision will want and need certainty for redress. If we are to change the Highway Code, the driving test, criminal and civil law then you would want it to be for the better not the worse.

It is right that change is embraced but careful consideration should be given to how that change affects the public who have a right to expect safe usage of our roads whether as a pedestrian, cyclist, or occupier of a vehicle.

On a final note it should not be overlooked that, if the trial of driverless cars succeeds, then it will likely not be long before driverless Heavy Goods Vehicles will share our roads that could pose further serious safety questions to the most vulnerable road users, such as cyclists.

What do you think?  Please share your thoughts with us.

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