Autonomous cars -- what will their liability be in car crashes?

Volvo Drive Me autonomous driving test car exhibited at the 2014 Salão Internacional do Automóvel São Paulo, Brazil.

One of the concerns that critics have raised about driverless cars is who will be responsible for any accidents they might cause once they are on the market. Google, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo recently have all said that they will take responsibility for accidents their autonomous vehicles cause, as Richard Read reports for The Car Connection.

Although Mercedes-Benz and Volvo manufacture their own vehicles, Google “has made it fairly clear” that it has no plans to actually build self-driving cars. Google has not yet spelled out its exact plans, but it appears that the company intends to sell its self-driving software to carmakers.

Google and Mercedes made the announcements about their taking responsibility and liability in an off-camera segment of the TV news magazine show “60 Minutes” with correspondent Bill Whitaker. Volvo CEO Håkan Samuelsson made that company’s announcement at a recent presentation on autonomous vehicles in Washington, D.C.

Legal Agreements?

Despite the three announcements, none of the companies has apparently signed a legal agreement that would hold them to their liability statements. Read wrote:

If they rely heavily on suppliers for their autonomous vehicle components (from code to radar to other sensors), they could easily change their minds.

However, liability might not really be much of an issue, if Google’s track record in the testing of its vehicles on public roads is any indication, because it is the human drivers of other cars that have caused the only car accidents Google’s self-driving vehicles have been in.

In an IEEE Spectrum article titled “Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Liability for Self-Driving Accidents,” Mark Harris quotes John Villasenor, professor of electrical engineering and public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, who said: “If an autonomous car causes an accident, then the manufacturer was already going to be squarely in the liability chain.”

The article included a quote from Erik Coelingh, senior technical leader for safety and driver support technologies at Volvo:

The takeaway? While carmakers’ promises to accept liability are probably unnecessary, they’re not a signal to steer your old wreck into an autonomous Volvo in the hope of a fat payout. ‘We do not take responsibility for all potential crashes with a self-driving car,’ warns Coelingh. ‘If a customer misuses the technology or if there is another road user that causes an accident, it’s not we or our customer who are to blame, it’s the third party.’

Uniform Policy Urged for Autonomous Vehicles

In a related news item, Curtis Moldrich reports for Alphr that Volvo CEO Samuelsson is urging the United States to adopt a uniform federal policy of regulations for self-driving vehicles. Samuelson said: “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.”

A comment by Hunter3203 to The Car Connection article includes the following:

[…] I think the manufacturers should get a break for providing a solution that potentially prevents 4,900,000 accidents, saves 30,000 lives, prevents 2,000,000 injuries and saves $784 BILLION in costs every year. Oh and don’t forget that such vehicles can offer non-drivers independence that they don’t currently have, people who have disabilities and those perhaps too old to safely drive themselves.

Image by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz, under Creative Commons license.

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