Should Google be held liable when its driverless cars crash?

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Should Google be held liable when its driverless cars crash?

NSW Transport says exemptions will be necessary.

NSW’s transport authority predicts that driverless car manufacturers like Google, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz will need to be protected from liability when their autonomous systems fail in order to keep the industry viable.

The agency has submitted a comprehensive survey [pdf] of all possible roadblocks in the way of driverless cars taking to the state’s roads to the NSW parliament’s road safety committee.

In preparation for what it sees as an inevitable driverless future, Transport for NSW says lawmakers will need to consider shielding manufacturers from legal liability to some extent.

“Should manufacturers bear liability for significant claims costs arising from injuries sustained in crashes involving driverless or autonomous vehicle technologies, this may discourage the development and delivery of new safety technologies,”it argued in its submission.

The same sort of exemption is currently extended to pharmaceutical companies for the development of vaccines, also following the rationale that the public safety potential offered by innovations in this space warrants special treatment.

The compulsory third-party insurance system in NSW is a fault-based scheme, and cars no longer controlled by a single, accountable driver threaten to tip this institution on its head.

“Where the driver is not at fault in a motor vehicle crash, the question then arises as to who could be held responsible for the crash, for example, the car manufacturer, the technical systems manufacturer, or the network supplying the GPS information,” Transport wrote.

Several pioneers in this space, including Google, have already pledged to accept full liability for system failure, but Transport for NSW said if innovation is to be encouraged, companies will need to be at least partly shielded from the threat of potentially business-crippling litigation.

On the up side, it also forecast that the significant adoption of driverless vehicles would likely drive down the cost of a green slip.

Government-commissioned actuaries said the technology would reduce the likelihood of injuries for drivers and passengers by 80 percent, for cyclists by 70 percent, for motorcyclists by 40 percent, and for pedestrians by 45 percent.

Insurance isn’t the only barrier Transport for NSW said would need to be overcome before the state reaches a human error-free roads nirvana.

The state’s road official said all jurisdictions adopting this technology will inevitably have to go through something of a danger period, where autonomous and human-controlled vehicles share the roads, before a more futuristic state can be reached.

It warned that humans and computers may behave differently, making the actions of both hard to predict for the other.

For example, it said, “some pedestrians may manage their own risk when crossing the road by making eye contact with a human driver before crossing a road".

“However, making eye contact with an automated vehicle will probably not be possible, and pedestrians will have to develop different risk management and safety strategies for automated vehicles."

Other driverless conundrums lawmakers will have to work through include:

  • How will future road laws define a ‘driver’?
  • Should different rules apply to cars with different levels of automation?
  • Who is responsible for illegal behaviour in a driverless car?
  • What will happen to drink driving/drug driving laws?
  • Should vehicle modifications be allowed to driverless cars?
  • Does transport legislation need to address hacking offences?
  • How would a state ensure road compliance from cars configured to different jurisdictions?
  • How much data should police be able to obtain from driverless cars to investigate crashes?

While the committee's chair, Greg Aplin, has predicted that the state will see driverless cars on its roads within the next couple of years, the pragmatic bureaucrats at the transport department forecast that large-scale adoption will not come about for decades yet.

They cautioned that the kind of autonomous road operations envisioned by the industry will be reliant on connected and standardised road infrastructure that will take many years to design and build.

“The duration of this transition will depend on the safety cases being demonstrated to promote community acceptance, government action to ensure a safe operating environment, and the pace of research and development of the automated vehicle and [cooperative intelligent transport systems] industries," the department wrote.

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