Few areas of technological advancement catch the public imagination quite like driverless cars. Perhaps it's the sense that, until recently, autonomous driving seemed like science fiction or perhaps it's because it seems that technology is about to give us back some of the endless personal time lost in the daily commute.
When is a vehicle autonomous?
Before looking at some of the specific legal challenges, we should be clear as to what we mean by an "autonomous vehicle". While most people's imaginations will immediately spring ahead to a fully automated vehicle which requires no human involvement, SAE International has developed a 6 level classification system for vehicle autonomy as follows:
Level 0: Effectively a standard vehicle that can issue warnings to the driver but has no control. Level 1: Fairly commonplace technologies such as Adaptive Cruise Control, Parking Assistance with automated steering, and Lane Keeping Assistance. At this level, the driver must be ready to take control at any point. Level 2: The driver must keep track of objects and events, in case the automated system fails to respond properly. However, the car can accelerate, brake and steer by itself. Level 3: The car is capable of monitoring its surroundings and within relatively predictable contexts, such as motorway driving, the driver can safely do other things, although the driver must still be ready to take back control if needed. Level 4: The vehicle can drive by itself in all but the most unpredictable environments. The driver does not normally need to pay attention once the autonomous system is activated. Level 5: No human intervention is required, other than setting the destination. The vehicle is capable of driving safely by itself and making appropriate decisions. Only Level 5 vehicles are "fully" automated and they are already being trialled. For example, the California Department of Motor Vehicles recently approved steering wheel-less, foot pedal-less, mirror-less, driver-less vehicles to be tested on California roads in 2018 while the Tesla founder and serial entrepreneur Elon Musk has stated that Tesla's Model 3 will be capable of Level 5 automation this year.
Legal liability in a driverless world
While engineers race to get us away from the wheel, lawyers and risk assessors are scrambling to figure out what this will mean for liability and insurance.
Traditional road traffic liability issues centre around the core principle that, save in fairly...