Man, Woman, Machine. Who will prove to be the better driver?

5th April 2019

Many of us will recall the days when autonomous vehicles were the sole province of sci-fi films and novels.  How times have changed!  The government has recently announced that London and Edinburgh will become the first UK cities to trial self-driving vehicle services.  The trial projects, which will allow the public to ride autonomous buses on a 14-mile route across the Forth Bridge, or book self-driving taxis to travel around parts of London, support the government’s ambition to have driverless vehicles on UK roads by 2021.

Supporters of new high tech travel solutions suggest an autonomous vehicle revolution will transform the way we travel, increasing driver safety, delivering better fuel economy, reducing congestion on our roads and providing new transport solutions for the disabled.

Introducing the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018, Chris Graying, Transport Secretary stated: “Automated vehicles have the potential to transform our roads in the future and make them even safer and easier to use, as well as promising new mobility for those who cannot drive….We must ensure the public is protected in the event of an incident and today we are introducing the framework to allow insurance for these new technologies.”

The statute addresses two key issues:

  1. A new framework for insuring and determining legal liability for accidents involving autonomous vehicles.
  2. Charging networks for electric and hydrogen fuelled vehicles.

The new liability framework creates primary liability for vehicle insurers in the event of an accident involving an autonomous vehicle which gives rise to damage.  Where a vehicle is uninsured, primary liability rests with the vehicle owner.  There will be no need for the party with damage to establish if the driver (human) or the vehicle (machine) was ‘in control’ at the time.

Damage is afforded a very wide definition and includes death or personal injury and any damage to property, but excludes the vehicle itself and goods carried for hire or reward.  The act also gives the ‘driver’ of the vehicle a right of claim ‘as passenger’ if the vehicle was in automatic mode and they suffer an injury.  Until now, policyholders have not been able to claim against their own motor policy, even if the accident was due to component failure or faulty servicing.

Where an accident arises in ‘automatic driving’ mode, the act confirms that there will be a right of recovery against a manufacturer.

The aim of the legislation is to avoid any gaps in insurance cover for injured road users and the approach of creating a primary liability on vehicle insurers, with a subsequent right of recovery against manufacturers, is similar in many respects, to the strict liability regime for product liability under the Consumer Protection Act 1987.

Interestingly drivers and/or vehicle owners may also find Insurers seeking recovery from them in the event of failing to update, or tampering with, a vehicle’s on-board software.  Whilst it is difficult in theory to fault the logic of this approach, in practice, complexities loom. The Act puts the responsibility for installing software updates on any person with use of the vehicle.  How will this work with shared/fleet vehicles that may regularly be used by many different drivers?  Insurers and vehicle/fleet owners will all need to ensure that responsibilities around correctly operating and updating autonomous vehicles are clearly understood and managed appropriately.

In addition to improving transport itself, the act supports the much wider objective of cutting the impact of transport on our environment, by providing a framework to encourage increased use of “ultra-low emission vehicles”.

The Department for Transport are afforded powers to make regulations aimed at pushing forward the Government’s stated objectives of improving the consumer experience of electric vehicle charging infrastructure; ensuring provision at key strategic locations like Motorway Service Areas and requiring charge points to have “smart” capability.

It will be interesting to see how motoring develops over the coming years.  Will the debate on whether men or women make better drivers be put to bed once and for all and will petrol and diesel vehicles find themselves consigned to our transport museums forever?

Kim Alcock, Managing Director, Motor

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