Autonomous vehicles – who is in the driving seat?

The UK government predicted in its budget in November 2017 that the driverless vehicle industry would be worth £28 billion to the UK economy by 2035 and that fully functional automated vehicles would be on the roads throughout the UK by 2021.

Hailed by many as the next step in the digital revolution, the development of driverless vehicles opens up many debates, not least of which is the issue of liability in the case of an accident.

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill was considered in a Public Bill Committee and proposes the extension of compulsory motor insurance to automated vehicles and the use of the single insurer approach for dealing with liability issues arising from collisions involving driverless vehicles.

Provided a policy of insurance is in place, the default position would be that insurers are liable to the injured party (including the automated vehicle “driver”) where an accident is caused by an automated vehicle driving itself. Insurers, however, will have a statutory right to claim against any other person who may be liable for the accident under existing common law and product liability laws, for example vehicle and software manufacturers.

The exceptions to the single insurer model are that liability may be excluded or limited if an accident occurs as a direct result of “unauthorised alterations to the vehicles operating system” or a “failure to install software updates”. Additionally, in a case where an accident is wholly due to the insured party’s negligence in allowing the vehicle to drive itself when it was not appropriate to do so, the Insurer will not be held liable.

The regulatory framework is still in its infancy and it will be interesting to see what impact this will have on policy underwriting, policy indemnity and insurance contracts in general.

This issue of liability was cast into the spotlight again just last month when it was reported that a self-driving Uber SUV being tested in Tempe, Arizona, struck and killed a pedestrian. It would appear from the circumstances of the accident, which are still being investigated, that the female pedestrian who was pushing a bicycle across the road at the time of the accident, went unnoticed by both the human safety driver and the sophisticated self-driving sensors on the vehicle.

It is likely that this incident will bring into sharp focus the risks associated with autonomous vehicles and the need for a robust regulatory and safety framework. It is imperative that those in the insurance and manufacturing industries remain in the driving seat and firmly in control to adapt to and support the development of automated vehicles. What is without question, however, is that the increasing prevalence on the roads of self-driving vehicles will change the landscape of motor insurance forever.

Should you have any queries in relation to the article above please contact Laura McKee, Director, Tughans Dispute Resolution Department.


While great care has been taken in the preparation of the content of this article, it does not purport to be a comprehensive statement of the relevant law and full professional advice should be taken before any action is taken in reliance on any item covered.