If an Autonomous Car Crashes, Who’s At Fault?

Source: Volvo

They may not be available yet, but 2015 has already felt like the year of the autonomous car. The Mercedes-Benz flagship S550 already has semiautonomous driving features, and this summer, Tesla’s autopilot system reached a small group of beta testers. Apple is rumored to be at work on an autonomous car, and Google’s few dozen self-driving test cars can be spotted zipping around Silicon Valley on any given day. And that’s just in the U.S. – at this point, a number of major automakers around the world are working on their own autonomous programs.

To automakers, it makes sense. After all, as the Google Car website points out, 94% of all accidents involve human error. But what’s troubling is the other 6%, those accidents that involve snap decisions, may not be easy to define, and are a matter of life and death.

google car
Source: Forbes

It’s the worst case scenario for autonomous car programs: Imagine looking up in your autonomous car and realizing you’re being hurled toward a pileup on a crowded city street. What should the car do, continue on and risk injury to its passengers, or swerve to avoid the pileup, even if that means driving up onto a crowded sidewalk? Today, scenarios like this are the reason why all drivers have liability insurance. But if car owners have no control in an accident, then who’s responsible?

In a recent profile on 60 Minutes, representatives from both Mercedes-Benz and Google said that the companies would accept liability in cases where autonomous cars are at fault. And speaking at a function at the Swedish Embassy in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, Volvo president and CEO Håkan Samuelsson declared that Volvo would follow suit. In the most detailed statement on autonomous car liability given by an automaker to date, the announcement comes as the brand is preparing its Drive Me project, which is set to launch in 2017 and will give 100 people access to self-driving XC90 SUVs in Volvo’s home city of Gothenburg, Sweden. 

Source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

An automaker accepting liability should an autonomous car be at fault is no small claim. So far, test cars have been notoriously finicky in rain, snow, and interpreting gestures and hand signals from pedestrians and other drivers. There’s still a huge margin for error, and with more companies entering the fray and jostling to be the first out of the gate, it’s unlikely that any early system will be 100% perfect.

On top of declaring Volvo’s responsibility for its cars, Samuelsson threw down the gauntlet to the U.S. government to let automakers expand their test programs, and put federal regulations in place now instead of playing catch-up once self-driving cars hit showrooms. “The U.S. risks losing its leading position due to the lack of federal guidelines for the testing and certification of autonomous vehicles,” Samuelsson warned. “Europe has suffered to some extent by having a patchwork of rules and regulations. It would be a shame if the U.S. took a similar path.”

Source: Volvo

To date, only four states — California, Nevada, Florida, and Michigan — allow for autonomous car testing on public roads – in large part due to that liability issue. But four states is a poor sample size, and it does nothing for people living in the other 46 states. A major factor in ensuring that autonomous cars work is is the idea that roads will be clearly and accurately mapped across the country. Because of this nationwide necessity, Samuelsson is advocating for the development of autonomous cars to be a federal matter, not something simply left up to the states.

“The absence of one set of rules means car makers cannot conduct credible tests to develop cars that meet all the different guidelines of all 50 US states,” he says. “If we are to ensure a smooth transition to autonomous mobility then together we must create the necessary framework that will support this.” Of course, the development of self-driving cars is being fully undertaken by automakers with little to no government involvement. But like the federal highway system, autonomous cars will need the cooperation of every state in the union in order to work safely and as intended. After that, it’s all on the automakers – and it’s reassuring to hear them acknowledge that for once.

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