Autonomous Driving Accidents – The Rise of the Machines
In today’s world of rapid advances in technology, the line between science fiction and reality gets increasingly blurred each day. Nothing typifies this change like the rise of automated and autonomous vehicles.
As advanced features such as adaptive cruise control, parking assist, and lane departure warning systems become more commonplace, the question of responsibility in the event of an accident needs to be addressed. As the car itself assumes more control of the driving experience, are automakers going to be opening themselves up to more product liability?
In this article, we examine the shifting landscape of advanced driver-assistance systems and explore some of the possible impacts they’ll have when it comes to determining fault in car accidents.
The future, today
While we’re not living in a Philip K. Dick novel just yet, the technology going into driver-assistance features is evolving at a much faster rate than the laws that regulate things such as highway safety and automobile insurance. In December 2018, the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) released a paper entitled Auto Insurance for Automated Vehicles: Preparing for the Future of Mobility in order to address this issue.
This paper lays out several recommendations about how the insurance industry and Canada’s lawmakers can better address issues specific to autonomous vehicles on our roads. Widely seen by insurers and brokers as a good starting point, the paper does its best to get the ball rolling on what could be one of the more interesting debates in the coming decade.
Chief among the recommendations in the paper are the following:
- A single insurance policy that covers both driver negligence and malfunctions in automated driving technology need to be developed in order to better facilitate liability claims;
- A legislated data-sharing arrangement between car makers, owners, and/or insurers to help determine accident causes, enabling the car industry to better equip vehicles with accident prevention technology and the insurance industry with better policies;
- And a need to update the federal vehicle safety standards to address new technology and cyber security standards.
The problems with at fault determination
While no one can say for sure when autonomous vehicles will become the norm, automakers are optimistic. Companies such as Nissan, Ford, and Volvo see self-driving cars on our highways as a very real possibility in the next decade. Therefore, the need to resolve the legal issues surrounding these cares is paramount.
Assigning liability at an automobile accident under the current legal regime is quite difficult. There may be a number of factors involved, including number of drivers, road conditions, and manufacturer’s defects, to name a few.
As control of the vehicle is transferred to the advanced driver-assist systems, there is an increasing potential that an accident may be caused by a system malfunction, particularly in the early days of design and integration. This creates even more liability issues, begging the question, would system malfunctions cause an automaker to be liable for accidents?
While automakers and technology companies have coverage in place for potential liability issues, a duty of care would need to be established. In addition, the plaintiff (the injured party) and their qualified experts would be required to show that the car did in fact malfunction and that the manufacturer acted negligently in producing the automobile.
One of the major hurdles involved in automated driving litigation lies in the digital design of these systems. While software can indeed malfunction and potentially lead to a motor vehicle accident, no court has ever ruled that a coding error, or something of the sorts, constitutes a manufacturing defect.
The benefits of a single policy
Ontario’s current no fault insurance system is littered with flaws, unnecessary delays, and is far from a comprehensive, streamlined system. It is often the case that someone must be sued in order to recover the money that an injured person is owed.
Advanced driver-assist systems complicate Ontario’s insurance system, as there is the potential for an “at-fault driver” to not be at fault at all. Given a scenario where an auto-manufacturer has negligently produced a faulty driver assisted car, the lawsuit that would follow has the potential to become very complicated and expensive for an injured party.
The single policy proposed by the IBC report would bring auto manufacturers, tech companies that make advanced driver-assistance systems, and consumers under the single existing insurance structure. With such a policy, an injured driver would make a claim directly to their insurance company, and the insurer would recover costs from the vehicle manufacturer or technology provider. Again, this may not cover everything in a case of catastrophic loss, but it would do a lot to streamline the claims process for many.
Sharing is caring
An issue with incorporating a single policy system is consumer and corporate unwillingness to share data. While the data recovered from such a sharing system would inform how accidents are occurring, many consumers would view the system as an invasion of privacy.
For a single insurance policy to be effective, storing and sharing car accident data is essential. However, getting a data-sharing agreement in place will likely prove hard to legislate and implement. Canada has some of the world’s most stringent data privacy measures in effect. Under these laws, car manufacturers and technology companies producing driver assisted systems do not need to reveal data to insurer’s which may assist in establishing their own liability. Thus, these companies may lobby against the necessary changes to the privacy legislation, which would enable such a share regime to exist.
Implementing a data-sharing agreement raises a lot of questions, especially about who will host and control this data. But a well-managed system will go a long way to determining fault in such accidents.
Recent developments stateside
To date, there have already been accidents in the United States involving autonomous vehicles. In one incident, on March 18, 2019, a self-driving vehicle operated by Uber even struck and killed a pedestrian in Phoenix, Arizona. Unfortunately, all of these cases settled privately.
In the Arizona case, Uber reached a settlement with the family within 10 days. According to Agnieszka McPeak, a law professor at the University of Toledo, “That case settled pretty quickly because they [Uber] don’t want [to set a] negative precedent. As soon as there’s a case that goes against them, it opens up a Pandora’s box of liability.”
The future of autonomous vehicles in Ontario
As life continues to imitate science fiction, sharing our roadways with autonomous vehicles will become more and more commonplace. With the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reporting that the primary cause in over 90% of car accidents is human error, we should all be safer once smart technology is firmly and securely in place.
In the meantime, there will be a transition as autonomous vehicles and “old-fashioned” human driven cars must share the road. Hopefully, the recommendations of the IBC are implemented sooner than later, and the legal process of sorting out liability in an accident is made clear for all.
Are advanced driver-assistance systems to blame for your injuries?
If you or a loved one has been injured in a crash involving an autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicle, including your own, contact the experienced personal injury team at Mackesy Smye today by following the contact link below. We’ll review your case for free and make sure you have the best representation possible should you decide to proceed with your claim.