Manufacturers willing to accept some liability for driverless cars

10 October 2015 by Steve Blum
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Taking the blame, up to a point.

Self-driving cars might be less than five years away. Toyota is planning to put one on the road in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and Elon Musk has said that Tesla might have one even earlier than that. In fact, Musk has said that some existing Teslas could soon get a software update that will let them go driverless – or at least do the driving while a human watches – on highways and parallel park themselves.

Safety is a big concern, of course, but there will soon come a point – we may already have passed it – when a networked, computerised automobile is a safer bet than a 16 year old boy with car keys and a six pack of beer. And it will only get better from there.

But accidents will happen. This being the U.S., the first question will be who do we sue? That’s a problem that’s been vexing regulators and developers alike. The answer might turn out to be the company that built and programmed it. That’s what Volvo, Mercedes and Google have promised, according to a story on the BBC website

Ben Gardener, a solicitor at Pinsent Masons, believes Volvo’s guarantee is aimed at reducing uncertainty in the minds of governments and regulators.

“Volvo wants to remove the uncertainty of who would be responsible in the event of a crash. At the moment it could be the manufacturer of the technology, the driver, a maker of a component in a car.”

Volvo also told the BBC it would only accept liability for an accident if it was the result of a flaw in the car’s design.

In other words, if you grab the controls and hit something, or if someone hits you, the normal rules apply.

Volvo’s declaration is only a partial solution, though. The hardware and software are only a piece of the puzzle, albeit a big one. Telecoms companies will connect self-driving cars to third party databases and other services, for example. No one has worked out yet who’s to blame if a server crash causes a real one.