Will Autopilot Cars Drive Premiums Up?

This article was published on: 07/6/16

Recently the world learned of a tragically unfortunate incident in which the first ever fatality at the wheel of a self driving car happened in the United States. Tesla, the car’s manufacturer, insists their cars are safer than other cars despite the collision. Scott Rees & Co investigates whether taking away responsibility from a driver muddies the waters of injury claims and in doing so affects insurance premiums?

Driver was “watching Harry Potter”

The accident which occurred in May happened when the driver Mr Joshua Brown, 40, had his Tesla model S on autopilot. It failed to notice an HGV crossing the highway and collided head on into the underside of the trailer.

According to local police reports, the roof of the vehicle was torn off and Mr Brown was pronounced dead at the scene. The truck driver in the incident said that while he was driving he saw Mr Brown watching a film. While the Tesla doesn’t allow any of its internal display screens to play video while driving; the portable DVD player found at the scene points towards Mr Brown watching it using that.

The HGV driver stated that a Harry Potter film was still playing on a tablet on the ground after the crash. This evidence raises the question for future cases of who is to blame on autopilot? The software or an inattentive driver?

Technology Vs Intuition

The biggest headache for drivers, their insurers and solicitors going forward is whether the widespread use of driverless cars will make injury claims from collisions a much more complicated matter, in which the victim could potentially lose out?

It is claimed that driverless vehicles could cut out 90% of accidents, but they also have the potential require making tough moral choices in extreme circumstances; for instance, if a driver swerves and kills a single passenger, rather than a group of pedestrians. However , to focus on the much simpler aspect of a collision with a driverless car; who would be to blame if an auto piloted car collides with another vehicle? Here are some possible options:

  • The vehicle manufacturers – The collision detection technology didn’t prevent a crash
  • The technology creators – Failing to programme an appropriate reaction to that situation
  • The driver – Failing to take manual control & keeping an eye out for hazards

In the case of Mr Brown’s collision, it could be argued that he should have still paid attention to the road. However, this argument could be countered by the fact that the vehicle should have detected the HGV. In actuality, the cameras on the front of his car didn’t see the lorry due to its colour being white and blending in with the sunny sky behind it. In this situation it is difficult to ascertain fault and could spell problems in the future for similar situations.

Pushing Premiums Up

While a move to fully automated cars alongside new technology would be beneficial for road users and likely reduce the amount of accidents on roads, it could come at the cost of much higher premiums for drivers, due to disputes over liability.

Given that most incidents could be treated as 50/50 liability on account of external factors like software; victims who come off worse in any incident could find it difficult to be fully absolved from blame or find blame with the offending driver.

With more insurance firms potentially paying out at 50/50, it could have a knock on effect for drivers, resulting in higher premiums and higher excess fees. Collisions are not always caused by driver error; sometimes the weather or other external factors will come into play. How would the system react should the road be slippery from ice, oil or simply being wet? How would the system react to a tree falling from high winds or objects being blown into the road? Scenarios are exhaustive and because of this, no company could claim to eliminate 100% of collisions, even with the best technology, therefore always leaving the chance of an accident occurring.

What Next?

In the long term we can’t be sure whether full adoption of automated cars will happen in the future. However, with companies such as Google testing their own, we can be sure there are companies there hoping that it will. What is worrying for drivers at this time would be how this technology would work with the plans to set the small claims limit to £5,000 on the horizon, threatening to, deny access to justice for those with injuries that are deemed to be minor.

The worst case scenario for injured drivers in the UK would be to see the claims limit rise at the same time as the launch of driverless technology. With a totally new legal landscape required to set precedents on who would be to blame in collisions, the lay person could very easily become lost in the hunt for justice. Drivers already find it hard to represent themselves without assistance from a solicitor and to add uncertainty as to who to pursue into the mix, it paints a very bleak picture for those suffering minor injuries as a result of auto piloted car collisions. Does the legal landscape for drivers look more treacherous going forward as a result? At first glance it certainly seems so.

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