AXA and Burges Salmon report calls for standards to cover liability arising during switch between autonomous and human driving

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Insurance company AXA and law firm Burges Salmon have called on legislators to introduce standards for vehicles that can switch between autonomous and human driving.

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, which will create a list of vehicles that will be considered ‘automated’, with liability to third parties falling on insurers, is currently making its way through Parliament, but it includes no provisions for an accident during the ‘handover’ between car and driver.

This handover period, according to the second in a series of reports on the insurance and legal issues connected to VENTURER, a public, private and academic initiative examining the wide scale adoption of connected and autonomous vehicles, could create a grey area for liability, especially if an accident happens during the ‘handover’ between driver and vehicle.

The current law expects the driver to be responsible for the vehicle at all times. This creates issues if there is a time lag in the driver regaining effective control after the vehicle has been driving autonomously, according to AXA and Burges Salmon’s report.

VENTURER’s handover trials, looking at the return to ‘baseline’ driving across a range different indicators, highlighted the delays expected in regaining full control at different speeds, with drivers taking almost three seconds to do so at 20mph, for example.

AXA and Burges Salmon recommend that government and industry take account of the issues encountered by drivers during the handover phase. They call for new standards that reflect the real-world capability of drivers and avoid stifling the development of automated vehicles by unfairly penalising motorists.

Manufacturers will need to design in safety and develop handover processes that reflect the reality of drivers’ capabilities, they said.

David Williams, technical director at AXA UK, commented: “AXA has supported the advent of driverless cars from the very beginning. It is exciting, through projects like VENTURER, to be at the forefront of a change that could have a profound, positive effect on society.”

“People must understand, however, what the vehicles are capable of and, very importantly, what the law allows us to do (or not do) when travelling in them. Handover presents a complication for the basic liability model: how can we apportion responsibility between human driver and the vehicle fairly?”

Chris Jackson, head of transport at Burges Salmon, added: “Setting the boundaries of driver and autonomous system liability will require a detailed understanding of how users interact with technology. Defining the parameters of handover is an important step in delivering the driverless experience which people will expect.”

Autonomous vehicles hit the headlines last month when an Uber self-driving vehicle was involved in a collision that led to the death of a pedestrian in Arizona in the US.

Uber suspended its autonomous vehicle testing programme in the US state as a result, and reportedly settled with the victim’s family out of court.

The tragedy prompted new questions about the technology’s future and where liability falls when an accident occurs. Speaking in March, Nigel Brook, partner at law firm Clyde & Co, said: “Insurers and the firms developing autonomous vehicles will be keen to understand the full implications of this accident as more details emerge. However, the reality is that the development of this technology will continue apace. An event like this, while tragic, is not unanticipated.”

“A safety driver was present in the Uber vehicle but seemingly couldn’t prevent this accident. This highlights a key question surrounding so-called Level 2 or Level 3 autonomy—partial or conditional automation. If the system hands back control to the human driver at short notice, how readily can they react? This isn’t so much about the technology; it’s about how quickly someone can re-engage with their surroundings and avoid any potential hazards.”

He added: “One of the key benefits of self-driving vehicles is that they collect and store masses of data. Investigators will be able to interrogate the vehicle to understand what happened and why the collision occurred. Ultimately, this trove of data will improve safety and help detect fraudulent insurance claims, which will benefit every motorist.”

“Let’s be clear: no one has claimed these vehicles are accident-proof. What we do know is that ultimately they should be considerably safer than human drivers.”

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Mark Dugdale is the editor of Claims Media. Mark welcomes articles, letters or feedback from readers and can be reached via mark.dugdale@barkerbrooks.co.uk