Scott Whyte: If a driverless car has an accident, who pays?

With expectation that it will ­revolutionise how we travel, the driverless vehicle phenomenon is gathering pace as it moves from science ­fiction to reality.

An Uber driverless car waits in traffic during a test drive in San Francisco. Picture: AP
An Uber driverless car waits in traffic during a test drive in San Francisco. Picture: AP

However, what will be the implications for the motor insurance and claims industries when, as seems inevitable, they are introduced on public roads?

If the technology works as it should, road accidents should be significantly reduced – if not eliminated altogether. This is because human error - rather than mechanical faults, poor roads or bad weather – is the ­ultimate cause of the majority of accidents. According to Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents research, 95 per cent of all road accidents involve some form of human error, and in 76 per cent, a human is solely to blame.

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Nevertheless, malfunctions have occurred in driverless cars in the US. In what is believed to the only accident where the driverless car was ‘at fault’, a Lexus crashed into a bus at 15mph. But even this was due to sandbags on the route, forcing the Lexus to cut in, where it incorrectly assumed the bus would slow down to let it enter.

When these vehicles enter the mass market they will, for some time, be sharing roads with ­manually operated ones. When you combine the prospect of malfunction with human error, it is clear that liability is very much an issue.

Both Volvo and Google have indicated that they would accept full responsibility for any ­accidents caused by their driverless cars. This could mean ­owners of these vehicles move from personal motor ­policies to manufacturers either insuring their vehicles directly or operating on a self-insured basis, which would require in-house claims teams.

As we move away from individual human responsibility for accidents, amendments to both the Highway Code and Road Traffic Act will be necessary. That being said, there could still be a user who is responsible, or owner ultimately responsible, if 
self-driving vehicles have a manual override feature.

What is interesting is that the technology in these ‘smart’ vehicles should offer greater insight into collisions than current models, as they are expected to retain details on speed and impact. The most up-to-date vehicles feature dash-cams and GPS systems to support accident and insurance claims, but it’s likely this technology will be standard on all self-driving vehicles and should offer unparalleled data on what actually caused them.

Manufacturers are ­evidently keen to push ahead with driverless vehicles, especially in the commercial sector, but we are still some way from it being the norm to have them on public roads.

Part of that is down to ­public acceptance of reliability and safety, but in fact there are reams of legal and insurance issues that need to be addressed before driverless vehicles take over our roads.

Scott Whyte is managing director of Watermans Accident Claims and Care, which has its head office in Leith.