Who’s at Fault When Your Driverless Car Crashes?

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Imagine you’re the new owner of a shiny new driverless Google car. One morning, you punch your destination into the touchscreen pad, the car dutifully starts its engine, applies acceleration, and heads out onto city streets. As you’re just beginning to enjoy your cold brew coffee and favorite Spotify station—crash!—your car strikes another vehicle piloted by a human being.

If you were a typical driver today, you would assess the damage, trade insurance information, and start the process of determining which driver was “at fault” for the accident. But you’re not a “driver,” are you? Your car doesn’t even have a steering wheel, for crying out loud. When the other driver claims that he did nothing wrong, who’s responsible?

Driverless Cars Will Change Auto Insurance

The robots are coming! A global study found that by 2030 there will be 380 million semi-to-fully autonomous vehicles on the roads. Google is hard at work creating its driverless car, which the company says should be on the market by 2020. Meanwhile Tesla, Audi, Volvo, and other manufacturers are working on car models that include “semi-autonomous” technology, with features such as automatic parking and recall, autopilot driving at low speeds, and emergency braking. Soon, these types of cars will seem as commonplace as airbags and anti-lock brakes. 

One piece of good news is that these tech-rich cars are likely to bring about an age of safer driving. The same study suggests that driverless and semi-autonomous cars will lead to a 30 percent reduction in car accidents. These smarter cars are so smart, in fact, that they could potentially eliminate crashes caused by human error altogether, saving 30,000 lives per year. That’s something we can all look forward to.

Driverless and semi-autonomous cars will lead to a 30 percent reduction in car accidents.

The increased safety of these cars is a major reason that experts expect the cost of insurance to go down, and why the insurance industry may be worried about its future. With fewer accident claims comes fewer dollars, which could result in a shrinking of the industry (up to 40 percent by 2030, by one estimate).

One thing’s for sure: insurance companies will need to change the way they determine rates. Today, your auto insurer sets your rates based on your risk as an error-prone human driver. It bases the rates on factors like your age, sex, and driving history. This goes out the door if a human being isn’t behind the wheel. So what then? Insurance companies will need to rely more heavily on information about the make, model, and technology in your car. For this reason, some experts say that insurance rates will increase for drivers of regular cars, because they will be far more accident-prone compared to their robotic counterparts.

It’s certain that the insurance industry will have to adapt to these issues of cost and risk. But in the case of your hypothetical crash, another, more immediate, question remains: Who’s responsible if your driverless car crashes?

Who’s at Fault? It Will Depend on the Car

If you own an autonomous car and it crashes, who—or what—is at fault in the eyes of your insurance company? Like the question of how will insurers set rates, the liability answer isn’t entirely clear at this point. You can be sure that liability for autonomous vehicles is an issue that the industry, the government, and the public will be talking about more often and with more urgency.

For now, based on our research of the industry and reactions from the government, there are a couple of likely scenarios. The gist is that it depends on whether your car operates totally without your control, or if you’ll still have the ability to take over. In other words, will your car actually be driverless, or just semi-autonomous? 

Totally Driverless: Not Your Fault

Just how driverless will your future car be, anyway? Google is designing its cars to be completely hands off: no steering wheel, no gas pedal, no brakes. You just hop inside, tell it where you need to go, and relax while it takes you to your destination. Google sees this as the best-case scenario for our automotive future, and it’s funneling millions of dollars into the effort. In February, the federal government officially recognized Google’s software as the driver for its autonomous cars. That’s good news for people worried if they’ll be responsible for accidents while riding in a car for which they have no control.

Google takes on liability for the accident because they designed the vehicle and the technology that propels it.

In this scenario, if your driverless car gets into an accident, it’s likely that you will not be at fault for potential injuries or damages. After all, you had no possible way to control the direction, speed, or maneuvering of the vehicle. Unless the accident was caused by another (non-robotic) driver, Google takes on liability for the accident, because it designed the vehicle and the technology that propels it. 

But why would Google and other companies be willing to accept the risk for potentially costly accidents? The answer isn’t so far-fetched. In fact, the scenario isn’t much different from existing product liability law. On the other hand, it remains to be seen if Google, facing probable accidents in the future, would totally accept liability for crashes. Like in the recent Tesla “Summon” feature crash, company’s often fight (rightly or wrongly) to claim that owners are responsible if they aren’t operating a product properly.

As the owner of a fully autonomous vehicle, you may be able to rest assured that you won’t be held responsible if your vehicle crashes. But many cars in production are only semi-driverless. What then?

Semi-Autonomous: Not So Sure

Not all car manufacturers are planning for a fully driverless future. Audi, Tesla, and others have said that despite adding innovative technologies that provide semi-autonomous functions to their cars, drivers are ultimately responsible for keeping these vehicles in control.

It’s also possible that cars won’t be allowed by the government to drive without some human interaction. Some states have proposed regulations to require a licensed driver to be behind a steering wheel at all times. This would be disappointing news to Google, which sees the future filled with totally robotic cars that can’t be controlled by humans.

In this middle ground territory between autonomous and human-controlled driving, the question of liability and fault is murkier. If you drive a Tesla that allows you to take your hands off of the steering wheel while driving on a highway, or that will park itself, and conditions suddenly change requiring you to take control, at what point are you responsible for what happens next? How much time is required between the car’s notification that something has gone wrong and for you to take evasive action?

These are questions that will be hashed out by governments and the industry. Getting there could be messy, as insurance companies and courts try to determine fault for accidents involving semi-autonomous cars.

One factor in these decisions is the technology itself. Cars autonomous functions are being fitted with “black boxes” that record everything from speed, direction, and braking force to weather conditions and video footage of an accident. But who has access to this data? Is it only the manufacturer? Can they share it with insurance companies, the government—with you?

Still, with all of this information, if the human driver or passenger is determined not to be at fault, then which organization is? Is it the vehicle manufacturer? Is it the technology provider, which may or may not be the same as the car company? Perhaps it’s the government, which after all allowed these advanced and potentially dangerous vehicles on the road in the first place. We don’t have an answer yet, but the question is likely to be a boon to the lawyer industry!  

You’ll Still Need Coverage

Beyond the question of liability is what fully driverless cars will do to the cost of auto insurance. As an owner of a fully driverless car, do you need to purchase liability insurance? If not, your premiums for car insurance will go down, possibly by 10 percent or more. On the other hand, rates for property damage coverage could go up to cover the high cost of repairing expenses cars with sophisticated technology. However, many experts expect that eventually the general cost of auto insurance will go down as cars become safer and accidents reduce.

Most states require drivers to purchase liability coverage to be able to drive legally. State governments may need to change their laws to adapt to driverless cars in near future. Car and technology manufacturers are actively pushing state governments to make these decisions sooner rather than later. They fear having to deal with a patchwork of laws and regulations that will play out in messy court cases, potentially slowing innovation and production. Companies like Google and Tesla certainly want to avoid that for their own financial interests.

Whether or not the need for liability coverage evaporates, you’ll still need protection for potential damages to your vehicle and to protect yourself from other drivers. You’ll need insurance—like comprehensive and collision coverage—to protect your valuable asset. 

If you’re in an accident with a human-piloted car, and that driver doesn’t have insurance or not enough insurance to pay for your injuries or car repairs, you’re out of luck. This situation exists today, and it’s why many people choose to purchase Uninsured or Underinsured Motorist (UM/UIM) coverage

More Questions Remain

If you haven’t guessed by now, it’s our opinion that many more questions remain about driverless cars than have answers.

How will you go about repairing a vehicle with autonomous technology? It’s doubtful that your local fix-it shop will have the know-how or tools to repair these cars with their fancy new tech. And if they did, how could you be sure that the repairs haven’t damaged or altered the technology, potentially putting you and other drivers in danger? Repair shops may not want their hands on these cars at all. This means you’ll have to take it directly to the manufacturers, resulting in you or your insurance company paying much more for repairs. 

The Bottom Line

Autonomous cars will change driving and car insurance. They will make you safer and probably eventually save you money. But several questions remain.

This discussion is far from over. As technology and manufacturing progresses, questions and opinions about driverless cars and how they will affect the insurance industry will continue to percolate. Part of this future world is a positive one—one with safer roads and fewer accidents, which could mean cheaper insurance for all of us.

But what do you think? Do you agree with our assessment of the driverless car future? Are there questions that we haven’t thought of? Tell us in the comments below, and share it with your friends online to get their opinions.

Before the shiny, autonomous future arrives, you still need car insurance. Do you have more questions about what kind of insurance—and which insurance company—is the best for you? We have lots of resources for you, like company reviews and how to get the cheapest rates in your state.

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