The news of the trialling of the first ‘driverless’ taxi service in Singapore in August brought back under the public gaze the growing use of autonomous technology in vehicles and the prospect in the near future of fully autonomous cars.
The advent of such vehicles poses issues for the legal profession, the insurance industry in particular and also – for nothing is perfect – accident investigators.
The main issue for the insurance industry is that of liability. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) has asserted that in cases where the vehicle is fully autonomous and there is no opportunity for the driver/passenger to intervene, then liability will rest with the manufacturer. Indeed, the motor industry itself, in a report for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders by KPMG published last year, accepted that ‘…liability will shift from drivers to manufacturers’.
As long ago as 2014, the ABI’s motor policy adviser Scott Pendry said in an address to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety: “The key change – and the potential shift to product liability – comes when the driver is not expected to oversee or monitor the vehicle and when they have ceded full driving responsibility to the car itself. Our initial view is that if a system fails on a fully autonomous vehicle causing it to crash, liability would rest with the vehicle or system manufacturer. This potential shift in liability would only occur when a driver has actively given complete control to the vehicle and has no option to intervene.”
For accident investigators the main change in determining the cause of an accident could lie in determining possible technological failures and/or interventions. Will accident investigators now need to be software engineers in addition to all the other skills required?
Insurance Broker Adrian Flux includes, in what it claims to be the UK’s first policy designed for driverless cars, cover for accidents where:
• Updates or security patches for things like the driverless operating system, firewalls, electronic mapping and journey planning systems haven’t been successfully installed in the vehicle within 24 hours of the owner being notified by the manufacturer or software provider – subject to an additional policy excess
• There are satellite failures/outages that affect the navigation systems, or if the manufacturer’s operating system fails or other authorised software fails
• Caused by failing when able to use manual override to avoid a collision or accident in the event of operating system, navigation system or mechanical failure
• Your car gets hacked or an attempted hack results in loss or damage.
That last point is where the determining of electronic interference may be part of investigating the cause of an accident.
In a somewhat chilling view into the future, Scott Pendry postulated the following set of scenarios: “A key data challenge is the threat associated with the deliberate misuse of a car’s data systems.
Autonomous systems will rely heavily on internet connectivity making them intrinsically vulnerable to cyber manipulation. Hackers may be able to override a car’s system to re-route it toward a particular destination, or overwhelm it with high volumes of internet traffic. And by intercepting and tampering with mobile communications and vehicle software updates, cyber-criminals could transmit malicious code or, in the worst case scenario, send new and dangerous instructions to the vehicle’s software systems.”