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Connected and autonomous vehicles – who’s liable?

Autonomous vehicles have moved from the pages of the technical press to mainstream media in recent months; no longer being seen as fanciful or speculative, they are being seen more and more as inevitable.

While the possibilities may be considered by some as endless with the resultant questions about what we will do with all that additional leisure time, others are asking “so what?” or more importantly “what happens when it goes wrong?”

While the pros and cons and possibilities of the technological debate will continue – two fundamental questions remain: what about those who enjoy the driving experience? and who is responsible when something goes wrong? What isn’t in question is that vehicle technology will continue to develop at a rapid pace as manufacturers continue to fight for market share. This can only be  good for the consumer as innovations quickly trickle down the vehicle ranges.

Private cars have moved their original function of getting us from A to B, to represent aspiration, status and freedom. With increasingly sophisticated levels of luxury and in-vehicle entertainment and information the car has become an intrinsic part of our society. But will autonomous vehicles be more suited to a different ownership model  - shared use or pay as you go for example?

Some vehicles are already connected to each other and infrastructure, with various systems to improve safety, capacity and the environment.Cruise control, crash avoidance, lane departure and adaptive speed control are all available now and as soon as vehicles start to communicate with each other and the roads they use the “driving” (or travelling?)  experience will become very different. But what happens when my lane departure warning system fails and I end up coming into contact with the car next to me?  My insurance company wouldn’t agree with me that the system was at fault and I had no part to play in the crash. I may argue that the white lining was below standard and my car was unable to detect it and hence warn me that I was crossing it – at which point I am seeking to share my liability with the road authority. 

What about the ethical decisions we make when faced with the choice of hitting a lamppost rather than a cyclist or a child – where does that hierarchy fit into an autonomous vehicle’s system? 

There are a number of fundamental questions around policy, governance, responsibility and liability which will have to be considered if the full benefits of technology are to be realised. The traditional approach of providing infrastructure to an ever growing community of disconnected users will change and the relationships between manufacturers, network operators and users will become more complex and interdependent.

If we don’t develop the relationships, have the discussions and draft the frameworks that are needed to realise this significant opportunity, we simply won’t deliver the societal benefits that should be realised by this, next, great leap forward.

  • Ian Patey is technical director and head of profession for intelligent transport with Mouchel Infrastructure Services

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