The rise of the machines and UK traffic accident claims

On 30 July the Business Secretary Vince Cable announced the that UK government has given the go ahead for the country to be among the first in the world to allow for testing of automated, driverless cars on its roads. The study will take place over a one year period within the next two years, as it is thought by 2020 it will be too late to compete with international players.

Under the scheme which is funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Transport in association with the Technology Strategy Board three cities will share a £10 million fund to host the trials of the technology. Likely candidates are Liverpool, Milton Keynes, Bristol, Newcastle, Southampton, Leicester and York who all sent council representatives to the ‘Shaping a Driverless Car Pilot’ meeting in February 2014, who along with other representatives of industry, government and academia met to discuss the details of the study. The driverless car trials will begin in January 2015 and will last between 18 and 36 months.

International legal issues with driverless cars

So far there have been similar schemes established in California, Nevada and Florida in the US as well as in Japan and Sweden, who will are allowing up to 1000 driverless cars on its roads by 2017. However, Sweden’s flagship automotive manufacturer, Volvo tested its Safe Road Train for the Environment (SARTRE) system on the roads around Barcelona, Spain in 2012, so although there is a rush on to advance the technology there are some obstacles to it been implemented in certain countries.

A reason for this can be found in the 1968 United Nations Convention on Road Traffic, also known as the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. This convention set international legal standards for road traffic, such as vehicle registration, identification, technical requirements and driver certification and was signed or acceded to by most countries. A key part of the convention which has held back the progress of live driverless car research is the legal restriction which states, ‘every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle’; totally appropriate in 1968 when such things were in the realm of science fiction, but now a restrain on progress.

This explains why a Swedish firm conducted its tests abroad, as Spain along with the US and UK amongst others signed the treaty, but never ratified it into state law.  Countries with a strong motoring heritage such as Germany, France and Italy all ratified the treaty therefore placing a legislative block on the development of the autonomous cars by their manufacturers in their own countries. This may be a contributing factor to Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Nissan stating that they don’t believe totally autonomous cars will appear before 2015, or even before 2020.

The UK has made allowances for this in its launching of the scheme as there will be trials of both fully autonomous vehicles which don’t have a driver at all and semi-autonomous ones which have a driver on board. However, the prospect of vehicles on the roads without any driver, or without them being in fully control poses some interesting questions to a member of a road traffic accident solicitors firm like the one I work at.

Road traffic accident compensation claims of the future

The formulation of the legislation to govern driverless cars on UK roads will require the consultation of many groups such as insurers, highways agencies, local and national government as well as the law society, so at the moment we can only speculate on what the law will be. It is worth noting the views taken by the insurance industry on the matter, particularly after their influence on legislators in the introduction of the LASPO act as well as for whiplash claim reform.

The 1988 Road Traffic Act which governs UK road laws applies to ‘persons using’ a vehicle rather than them being, ‘able to control his [their] vehicle’ as the Vienna Convention states. This gives the government some room to manoeuvre in legislating for both fully and semi-autonomous vehicles. As the market is likely going to be filled with all manner of autonomous, semi-autonomous and traditional vehicles it is likely that there will need to be stipulations for the different types, which would entail their own regulations.

The law for drivers in traditional vehicles would likely remain the quite similar to that which exists currently, though the procedure following an accident would need amending to include interactions with non-humans or persons within a semi-autonomous vehicle.  With robotised vehicles having an array of sensors and black box type recording equipment large amounts of data from an accident will be available for one side and not the other. This may necessitate traditional cars having more event sensors and recording equipment on board to provide evidence.

In cases where there is a fully automated vehicle which is involved in an accident the liability under the current legislation would be theirs as they were ‘persons using’ the vehicle at the time even if they were not in control of it. This would need to be revised and it is likely that the liability for an accident under these circumstances would fall on the manufacturer of the vehicle as a product liability claim. This could create a situation where two passengers are in different vehicles are injured, with say a whiplash injury in an accident and both of them claim against the manufacturers of their vehicles.

Product liability would also be likely to be aspect of an accident compensation claim after an accident involving a semi-autonomous vehicle such as the convoy systems such a Volvo’s SARTRE. However, in these cases human fault could also be the reason for an accident and they could be liable for claims. There is a possibility for such cases to be very complicated, involving both the vehicles data and the evidence from humans involved as well as on-lookers. This could mean producer liability, human user liability or a combination.

The adoption of automated vehicles has also raised the possibility that our notions of vehicle ownership change, which would have legal repercussions. There is speculation that driverless cars may result in the pooling of vehicles by people, who have access for periods in the day, rather than outright ownership. In this scenario vehicles could be operated by vendors or hire companies, who would be liable should their vehicles be responsible for an accident.

The idea of driverless cars still seems like pure science fiction, straight out of the pages of Philip K Dick’s The Minority Report, but with the government using 2020 as a deadline for this technologies launch a futuristic world is nearly at hand. No doubt some of the issues I have examined here as well as many others will need much consideration and legislating for, which is great news for firms such as Paul Rooney Solicitors for whom I work.

As a keen motorcyclist I look forward to the rise of robotic cars, whose sensors and human error free systems should mean safer roads on which to ride; I don’t expect there to be any autonomous motorbikes any time soon though.

This article was written by personal injury compensation specialist solicitor  from Paul Rooney Legal.