Blurred lines – The potential pitfalls of conditional automation on the road to driverless cars - DAC Beachcroft

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Blurred lines – The potential pitfalls of conditional automation on the road to driverless cars

Published 5 enero 2018

With the advent of vehicles fitted with increasingly advanced driver assistance systems, Peter Allchorne, Motor Partner at DAC Beachcroft Claims Limited examines the implications and potential pitfalls of conditional automation on the road to driverless cars.                                                                                    

After the previous draft legislation fell away with the snap General Election in June, the UK government recently reaffirmed its commitment to making driverless cars a reality on Britain’s roads by 2021 by laying before Parliament the Automated & Electric Vehicles Bill. When enacted, this will provide the necessary insurance framework to ensure that victims of road traffic collisions are compensated swiftly where the vehicle is operating in automated mode at the time of the incident and the vehicle itself, rather than the human driver, is at fault. 

The government’s approach to insurance for automated vehicles is both simple and pragmatic, opting for evolution rather than revolution. A ‘single policy’ approach will ensure that consumers of compulsory motor liability insurance are able to purchase a policy for a vehicle that is capable of automated driving in the same way as they do now for a conventional motor insurance policy. The difference is that as well as providing conventional third party cover for the driver when the vehicles is operating in manual mode, the policy will also cover the liability of the vehicle itself when operating in automated mode and the driver is not in control. 

By drafting the enabling legislation in this way, the government has rightly identified the importance of putting consumer interests at the heart of the regulatory framework. But, properly driverless cars, whereby the vehicle is capable of driving itself safely without the need for human intervention are unlikely to be commonplace on Britain’s roads for a number of years yet. In the meantime, we are already seeing a number of motor manufacturers bring to market new models with driver assistance systems of increasing levels of sophistication, which will soon include conditional automation – where the vehicle can drive itself under certain conditions, but will prompt the driver to take back control in circumstances where the automated systems cannot cope with a particular hazard or road conditions. 

Known by the Society of Automotive Engineers categorisation as ‘Level 3’, this stage on the journey to full automation presents a real safety challenge for government, motor manufacturers and insurers alike. Drivers risk becoming ‘disengaged’, as the vehicle appears to be capable of driving itself. This is especially so as these vehicles are likely to be ‘connected’ to the internet via an infotainment system housed in the centre console, offering the driver access to a vast array of information, including access to social media platforms. 

It is essential that motor manufacturers (who will be marketing these vehicles) and motor insurers (who will be dealing with claims arising from ensuing accidents) work together to educate consumers regarding the limitations of Level 3 vehicles, and the potential serious consequences of becoming distracted behind the wheel. In short, these vehicles are not driverless and manufacturers should think very carefully about naming conventions for conditional automation systems that suggest otherwise. 

Ultimately, where a Level 3 vehicle is involved in a collision, existing road traffic laws will apply. That is to say that it will be the driver’s actions or inactions that will be scrutinised in order to establish any criminal culpability, as well as any civil liability. And very few motorists are aware that being distracted behind the wheel is an aggravating factor which a judge must take into consideration when sentencing for serious motoring offences such as causing death or serious injury by dangerous driving. 

It is of course widely accepted that human error accounts for over 90 per cent of road traffic collisions. It therefore follows that the development of automated vehicle technologies will ultimately reduce both the frequency and severity of incidents on Britain’s roads. But mass market penetration of Level 4 and 5 truly automated vehicles is some way off. Meanwhile, we should not be so naïve to think that the cost of motor claims will diminish in the short to medium term, as the line between conventional and automated driving becomes blurred. And as more and more new vehicles enter Britain’s roads with increasing levels of componentry fitted to bumpers and windscreens, the cost of repairs will inevitably increase.

Authors

Peter Allchorne

Peter Allchorne

Bristol

+44 (0) 117 918 2275

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