Road Rage, Against the Machine: Autonomous Cars

Imagine a car that has no brakes or gas pedal. For many people childhood images of the Flintstone’s car come to mind. These strange cars that have no brake or gas pedal and even no steering wheel – as some prototypes have shown - are the way of the future. They are self driving vehicles, also known as autonomous cars. This new futuristic technology intends to put the “auto” in automobile. It will take society further from the Flintstones and closer to the Jetsons, though George Jetson did have to steer his own flying car.

This new autonomous vehicle landscape is in keeping with the innovative visionary practices of the automotive industry. This is an industry that has pushed the boundaries of the human imagination since its origins in the late 19th century. Henry Ford is a name that is synonymous with the automobile and ingenuity. Ford did not create the automobile or the assembly line; he did however create a marketplace that made the automobile affordable to middle class Americans. Staying ahead of the trend is vital to survival in this extremely competitive market place. It is a market that pushes society to reimagine the limitations of daily life. It was Henry Ford that famously said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

There are so many questions that people have when they first hear the concept of self-driving cars. For example, if you are cut off in traffic by an autonomous car, who do you voice your displeasure at? More importantly, who will be the recipient of the sign language tutorial that usually follows these interactions? These are genuine concerns that speak to a much broader issue. Who is at fault in the event of an accident, when the driver is not in control of the vehicle? Autonomous cars will change the legal landscape of driving.

The autonomous vehicle technology will create 3 distinct classes of automobiles. The first would be conventional cars, this would be the run of the mill manual operated type. Next would be semi-automated cars. These are cars that possess automated features such as park assist and lane departure warnings. Finally would be fully autonomous cars which would eliminate the human element involved in driving. The fully automated system would vary in its applications among auto industry producers. Ford has laid out plans to release a fully autonomous car in 2021. Their prototype does not have a steering wheel, a brake or gas pedal. This would provide no opportunity for human intervention. With no driver behind the wheel, who is liable in the event of an accident?

Over the next 10 years, insurance companies will be faced with the burden of determining who is responsible in collisions involving these self driving robots.  The report, titled Automated Vehicles: Implications for the Insurance Industry in Canada had this to say regarding this very issue, “Conventional vehicles will share the roads with semi-automated vehicles and the first self-driving vehicles. Personal liability for most collisions will begin to shift to include a mix of personal and product liability.”

This creates a dilemma with regards to insurance law. Motor vehicle accidents make up a substantial sector of insurance law claims. The application of the law looks to determine fault and hold the guilty party accountable. If the human element is eliminated from driving, then who is liable when accidents do occur? Thinking about the ramifications that autonomous cars may have on the insurance law industry may be putting the cart before the horse. The insurance industry has yet to propose what this new autonomous car insurance landscape will look like. It will definitely be something to keep an eye on in the next decade.