Artificial Intelligence

The ethical and legal implications

Widely anticipated Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill progresses through UK Parliament

Adam Sanitt

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill will pave the way for driverless cars on UK roads by extending compulsory motor insurance to autonomous vehicles.

The Pathway to driverless cars: proposals to support advanced driver assistance systems and automated vehicle technologies consultation was published by the Department of Transport in July 2016. It proposed extending compulsory insurance so the victims of an accident involving autonomous vehicles would be able to recover directly from the insurer irrespective of fault. The UK Government, in its response published on 6 January 2017, confirmed its intention to proceed with the proposals.

The UK Government hope these proposals will encourage manufacturers to develop transport technology in the UK. When introducing the Bill to the House for its Second Reading, Minister for Transport, Mr John Hayes, referenced repeatedly, along with his colleagues, the UK Government’s desire to be a “global leader in the production and use of automated vehicles”.

The Bill has first to identify which vehicles are included in the new regime. Here, it makes an interesting choice. Rather than setting out general characteristics of autonomous vehicles, it mandates the creation of a list of all motor vehicles that might be used on roads or other public places in Great Britain and that are designed or capable of safely driving themselves. This approach provides absolute clarity for insurers. It also illustrates the UK Government’s commitment to progressing autonomous vehicle technology: monitoring and updating this list will require significant resources and close relationships with the manufacturers to stay up-to-date with new developments.

Where an accident has been caused by an automated vehicle, the insurer will be liable for “death or personal injury” or any other damage apart from damage to the automated vehicle itself. Importantly, this covers the insured owner of the autonomous vehicle if they have suffered any harm as a result of the accident, not just other drivers of vehicles involved in a collision and third parties. The insurer may then claim against the person responsible for the incident, such as the manufacturer or another driver. Under this provision, anyone liable to the injured party is under the same liability to the insurer or vehicle owner, and the bill defines how the calculation of liability is settled. This includes the preservation of contributory negligence principles in the apportioning of liability.

The Bill also addresses the unique aspects of automated vehicles – the computer software and the issue of tampering. Insurer liability under the Bill is excluded if the software in an automated vehicle is not updated or if it has been adapted to a standard outside of the policy limits. This provision ensures that insurers are not responsible for autonomous vehicles with unauthorised modifications. It raises the question of how manufactures will disseminate software updates to their customers. Expecting customers to carry out updates themselves could create issues if the update is not received or if the customer does not install it properly, potentially resulting in the breach of their insurance policy. It may lead to manufacturers making the updates automatic – perhaps when a vehicle is not in use and is connected to Wi-Fi – thereby removing the vehicle owner from the process. It will be crucial to manage the resulting cyber security risks.

The fact that the UK Government are prioritising this in a packed parliamentary calendar shows their determination for the UK to become a “leading hub for modern transport technology”. That support is very much welcomed by the Association of British Insurers and the manufacturers. The Bill has already passed through the House of Commons second Reading and Committee Stage, and is currently waiting to be reviewed at the Report Stage. If it maintains its current smooth course, it could become law in the first half of 2018.

To find out more about the legal landscape of autonomous vehicles in the US, UK and Germany, read our Autonomous Vehicles publication.