“Science fiction is reality ahead of schedule,” it was once said. Twenty years ago, driverless cars in movies such as Total Recall were portrayed as an impossible fantasy. Technology has advanced very rapidly since then - Audi and BMW expect to be selling cars that are able to drive themselves by 2020.
As technology and the use of data become more sophisticated, we are starting to see some of the problems that mere humans will have to deal with in this area. Driverless car computers process all sorts of data from their many external sensors in order to function. Recently, one of Google’s driverless cars was involved in an accident which was, for the first time, as a result of the on-board computer and not any human error.
The US Transport Secretary this week said that driverless cars will bring “disruption on a number of fronts”. One of those disruptions is legal. Lawyers have little idea of how the law will operate in a world with driverless cars on the road.
The UK Government’s position on driverless cars
Firstly, in a Government action plan on driverless cars, the UK Government has said that driverless cars can today be legally tested on public roads in the UK. Testing is legal as long as a test driver is present and takes responsibility for the car being operated safely.
In the 2016 Budget, George Osborne has said that he wants to, “establish the UK as a global centre for excellence in connected and autonomous vehicles”. The Government has detailed plans for autonomous vehicles. It says in the Budget:
“The Government will:
Truck platooning refers to a group of lorries travelling in convoy while being controlled automatically by a lead truck that uses wireless communication to drive them.
Legal questions on driverless cars
There are two big questions regarding driverless cars and the law. The first is whether there will be a shift in the law from personal liability to product liability in respect of accident claims. A person who causes an accident while driving is personally responsible for that accident and will be responsible for damage caused by the accident. In a world with driverless cars, there may be a shift towards product liability, that is to say the driverless car manufacturer may be more likely to be liable for the accident and have to foot the bill for any loss and damage suffered as a result of the accident.
Secondly, there is the question of the criminal law. If a person drives carelessly or dangerously that person is guilty of a criminal offence. These offences can be very serious, particularly if there is a fatality as a result of the driving. It is not clear how the criminal law will apply to driverless cars, but there could be more corporate criminal responsibility for vehicle manufacturers if their driverless cars were found to have caused serious accidents.
We are only beginning to understand the ways in which driverless cars will change our lives. When one of the founders of the Ford motor company went to his bank for a loan in 1903, the president of his bank refused him and famously said, “the horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty.”
These legal issues will not be solved overnight. But one thing is clear - driverless cars are no novelty.