Responding to the news that an Uber self-driving vehicle has been involved in a collision which is reported to have led to the death of a pedestrian in Arizona, Nigel Brook, partner with global law firm Clyde & Co, said:
“Insurers and the firms developing autonomous vehicles will be keen to understand the full implications of this accident as more details emerge. However, the reality is that the development of this technology will continue apace. An event like this, while tragic, is not unanticipated.
“A safety driver was present in the Uber vehicle but seemingly couldn’t prevent this accident. This highlights a key question surrounding so-called Level 2 or Level 3 autonomy – partial or conditional automation. If the system hands back control to the human driver at short notice, how readily can they react? This isn’t so much about the technology; it’s about how quickly someone can re-engage with their surroundings and avoid any potential hazards.
“One of the key benefits of self-driving vehicles is that they collect and store masses of data. Investigators will be able to interrogate the vehicle to understand what happened and why the collision occurred. Ultimately, this trove of data will improve safety and help detect fraudulent insurance claims, which will benefit every motorist.
“Let’s be clear: no one has claimed these vehicles are accident-proof. What we do know is that ultimately they should be considerably safer than human drivers.”
Clyde & Co has published a serious of white papers on the development and implications of autonomous vehicles. Its Manchester-based Casualty team works for many of the UK’s leading insurers in managing vehicles accident claims.
Collision with motorcyclist
In 2017, motorcyclist Oscar Nilsson was travelling behind a self-driving Chevy Bolt in San Francisco when the vehicle began to switch lanes. Mr Nilsson drove forward into the space, but the vehicle abandoned its lane change colliding with him and knocking him to the ground. On 22 January 2018, Mr. Nilsson sued General Motors in what is the first known lawsuit involving a self-driving vehicle. The lawsuit alleges that there was a safety driver in the Chevy Bolt at the time of the accident, but that “he kept his hands off of the Self-Driving Vehicle’s steering wheel.” The lawsuit further alleges that the safety driver initially commanded the vehicle to change lanes to the left, but that “the Self-Driving Vehicle suddenly veered back into Mr. Nilsson’s lane, striking Mr. Nilsson’s motorcycle and knocking him to the ground.”
The lawsuit is still in its infancy, and no significant activity has occurred to date.
Insurance Edge Comment; The matter of how much the driver – or `safety operative’ in an autonomous car is to blame in an accident is a tricky one, and likely to be the crux of the argument following any serious incident. This matter of blameworthiness, or lack of it, is something the insurance industry needs to address before underwriting policies for everyday car drivers choosing semi, or fully, autonomous vehicles.
As the number of self-driving vehicles on our roads increases, we will see a movement away from legal actions relating to driver behaviour towards claims against manufacturers and suppliers – so called Product Liability claims. Some commentators have suggested that this trend towards more complex and expensive claims will lessen their attraction to plaintiff lawyers, but the Nilsson-GM case may suggest otherwise. The potential targets for Product Liability actions are extremely wide: defects in technology; failure to download the latest software to the vehicle; inadequate instructions; even failure to train staff properly. This will entail a marked change in the nature of claims for the UK motor market.
Insurance Edge Comment;
Many car manufacturers – like BMW pictured above – are already developing semi-autonomous vehicles and testing more advanced prototypes. There is always a human cost with new technology and the invention of bicycles, railways, aircraft and many other modes of transport have all had their problems. But will politicians, insurers, engineers and AI scientists manage to bring self-driving to the masses without too many fatalities?