Manufacturers could be liable for collisions stemming from malfunctions with driverless cars

Out-Law News | 05 Aug 2014 | 5:22 pm | 2 min. read

Manufacturers of driverless vehicles could be held liable for collisions and injuries stemming from a fault with their technology, under plans being considered by the UK government.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said the "the regime of strict manufacturer liability would continue to apply" that currently applies to anti-lock braking (ABS) and adaptive cruise control (ACC) systems is likely to also apply to driverless cars.

"For cars with high automation, we consider that the situation would not be significantly different to the current situation with technologies such as ABS and ACC, where malfunctioning can cause collisions and injuries, or even existing (non-autonomous) technology such as brake systems," the DfT said as it launched a review of laws and regulations relevant to driverless cars (11-page / 194KB PDF).

"It is anticipated that the regime of strict manufacturer liability would continue to apply. A failure leading to a collision is very rare, and current regulations are intended to minimise this risk for established technology, by requiring that in the case of a failure, the driver is warned and the system reverts to a fail-safe mode of operation. We would require cars with high automation to follow the same philosophy," it said.

In its review, the DfT drew a distinction between cars with 'high automation' and cars with 'full automation'. Fully automated cars are "capable of operating on the road network without human intervention, and in which a driver need not be able and ready to assume control", whereas cars with high automation are also "capable of operating on the road network without human intervention" but are "fitted with a full set of driving controls … which a driver must be able and ready to assume control [of]".

It said that driverless cars have the potential to improve road safety and congestion and could even help reduce emissions. Extensive testing of such cars is already being undertaken by manufacturers, the government said.

The DfT said it wants to identify all the legal issues concerning driverless cars so as to help facilitate testing of those vehicles: "The Department for Transport (DfT) is undertaking a review of the relevant legislation and regulation to see that there is a clear and appropriate regime to enable cars with advanced autonomous safety systems to be tested on British roads."

The government's 'call for evidence' has asked stakeholders for their views on how best to distinguish driverless cars from traditional vehicles so as to alert other road users to their presence. It suggested that a "warning signal showing autonomous operation" could be displayed on driverless cars or that another sign, such as a different number plate or windscreen sticker could be used to draw attention to "the potential capability of autonomous operation" of those cars.

"The introduction of highly autonomous cars represents a considerable change to the current road situation, and is likely to affect the expectations and behaviour of other road users," the DfT said. "Other road users may be surprised to encounter a car where the driver is not obviously 'driving' and therefore might not react to signals such as hand gestures. Eye contact is a vital part of interaction with other road users, particularly vulnerable road users, and how to deal with an absence of this needs detailed consideration."

"Would it be helpful for other road users, during the testing phase or permanently, to be aware that the vehicle is capable of autonomous operation, and/or operating in 'autopilot' mode?" it said.

The DfT also said that there may be privacy concerns that arise in future stemming from the operation of autonomous cars.

"Any data collection by an autonomous car would need to comply with existing privacy and data protection laws," it said. "This is not anticipated to be an issue during the early testing phase. Longer term, the implications are more complex. The use of vehicle event data recorders ('Black Box') is likely to become more prevalent. There may be a desire for these devices to become compulsory in autonomous cars. This would need a wide debate around the implications for privacy."

Late last month the government announced that as many of three UK cities are to be chosen to host the testing of driverless cars on public roads from next year.