Volvo steering wheel

Are Autonomous Cars Starting To Take Responsibility For Crashes?

Imagine you are driving down the road minding all of the safety laws when you suddenly get slammed into by a 2017 Volvo. Upon closer look, it looks like the driver was reading a book while the car was in motion. Before you get angry at what you perceive to be another distracted driver, you may want to take a closer look at the car. If it is a Volvo 2017, then it may be one of those new driverless cars you have been hearing about, and that puts you in a high-tech accident.

Volvo steering wheel

The idea of autonomous driving sounds futuristic, but it is common knowledge that people generally fear the future. A poll that was released in February 2016 indicates that 43 percent of respondents feel that autonomous driving is not safe. The interesting thing about this poll is that 43 percent was a majority, with 32 percent saying that autonomous driving is safe and 25 percent having no opinion. This technology is so new that some people don’t even acknowledge it yet. But driverless cars are real and the auto industry intends to make the majority of the cars on the road driverless within the next decade.

The Insurance Implications Of Autonomous Driving

Right off the bat, the auto manufacturing industry knows that it will bear the brunt of the accident liability costs that occur with its autonomous driving vehicles. Google and Volvo have taken the proactive approach in this situation. Both companies have offered a warranty based on the idea that the company will cover accident liability costs if their cars cause any accidents. Since most courts in the United States would not find a driver liable for an accident in an autonomous vehicle, Google and Volvo are really not taking any chances. But both companies know that they are also not setting themselves up for failure either.

The Benefits Of Self-Driving Cars

Autonomous vehicles do not fall asleep at the wheel, they do not get drunk, and they do not drive distracted. Right now, the biggest limitation of an autonomous car is that the bad weather blocks the car’s sensors and makes the car unable to perform properly.

It was recently found that using autonomous braking systems reduces the chances of a rear-end crash by 40 percent. Autonomous driving is simply safer because it takes the human element out of the equation. Since autonomous driving has been proven to be safer, even at speeds of 80 M.P.H., the manufacturers are really not taking the kinds of risks consumers think they are taking. Fewer accidents mean less financial responsibility, and that means less losses for the manufacturers due to accident liability.

So Who Is At Fault When An Accident Happens?

Personal injury liability exists at the state and local levels, which means that the laws are a patchwork of different opinions. But, in general, auto manufacturers are considered to be liable when one of their autonomous cars causes an accident. However, as we have seen, the manufacturers accept and even welcome this possibility. But accepting liability does not mean that the manufacturers are sitting back and taking the lawsuits in stride.

Auto manufacturers are trying to get the federal government to initiate laws at the federal level that would affect insurance coverage at the state levels. That is not nearly as easy as it sounds. Marijuana is a class 1 illegal controlled substance according to the federal government, yet many states have legalized recreational marijuana. While the federal government could start sending in agents to enforce the federal laws, it does not do that because of the costs involved. Trying to get the states to enforce federal liability laws as they apply to insurance coverage would probably run into the same problems as the marijuana laws.

Changes Coming To Laws and Insurance Coverage

Even without federal intervention, there will still be small changes in the state-level liability and insurance coverage laws. There are engineers working in the autonomous driving field who insist that perfected driverless cars will eventually eliminate the need for insurance coverage completely. Since there are so many ways that someone can be injured in a car, and since an autonomous car is not going to be able to prevent a tree from falling on itself, there will always be the need for auto insurance.

However, it is possible that people who buy autonomous cars could see customized insurance coverage that significantly reduces premiums. Since the auto manufacturers are fully ready to accept accident liability responsibilities, insurance companies would no longer need to cover the costs of accidents. This can seem like a stretch, but no one in the insurance industry is denying that this could happen.

Right now, every state has laws in place that allow consumers to sue auto manufacturers for mechanical defects that cause accidents. While autonomous is a new and very complex technology, it can still be classified under mechanical defects if the autonomous driving feature causes an accident. For this reason, legal experts do not expect autonomous cars to force every state to make drastic changes to their legal systems. As long as mechanisms are already in place to sue auto manufacturers for design and mechanical defects, then there will be ways for consumers to sue for accidents caused by autonomous cars.

One of the biggest questions surrounding the idea of accident liability and autonomous driving is whether or not the manufacturers having to assume all liability will cause the technology to be shelved at some point. Autonomous driving makes driving so much safer and prevents a lot of accidents. The safety aspect has auto manufacturers feeling confident that they can absorb liability costs and still make the profits they need to continue developing new autonomous technology.

What Does The Future Of Driverless Cars Look Like?

Google started making cars specifically to develop and sell autonomous vehicles. The engineers who are working on autonomous driving technology indicate that they are close to solving many of the limitations that plague today’s technology. Hardware and software developers are so confident in their technologies that they are willing to accept responsibility if their technologies cause accidents. It looks like we are headed to a future where humans no longer need to drive their vehicles.

Tesla car

Right now, Tesla and other autonomous car manufacturers make car buyers read and agree to contracts that state that the driver must have their hands on the wheel at all times, even when they engage the autonomous driving system. Most manufacturers are even installing sensors in steering wheels to tell whether or not the driver held up their end of the bargain.

While the data collected by steering wheel sensors could show in court that a driver did not have their hands on the steering wheel when an autonomous car crashed, the courts in every state will not find that evidence very compelling. Many courts have already ruled that manufacturers advertise autonomous vehicles as being able to drive without human interaction. The moment an accident happens, that advertising overrides any contracts that were signed.

It looks like car manufacturers who insist on developing and selling autonomous technology are locked into paying for accident liability costs. At first, the manufacturers fought the notion and pointed to the long list of warnings they give to drivers about how to properly use autonomous driving. But as the courts continually ruled against manufacturers, the auto industry has simply learned to accept the fact that it will be footing the bill for the next great driving innovation.