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Autonomous vehicles may be motoring towards the UK – but who is liable if they crash along the way?

08th March 2019

Now that the Automated and Electric Vehicles (AEV) Act is enshrined in law, will the government deliver ‘automatic’ compensation for injured victims of driverless cars? According to recent media reports, fully driverless cars are expected to take part in advanced trials on Britain’s roads by the end of 2019 under government plans to scrap a previous requirement for a dedicated safety driver.

Recently there have been a number of tragic accidents in the USA involving autonomous vehicles. Last March a pedestrian was killed in Arizona by a vehicle in self- drive mode. In the same month a car on ‘autopilot’ slammed into a crash-barrier in California, killing the driver who had taken his hands off the wheel for only six seconds. In 2016, another ‘autopilot’ failed to detect a large truck crossing the highway and a driver was killed as a result. Last year in the UK a driver was banned from driving after being caught moving to the passenger seat while on ‘autopilot’.

The AEV Act is intended to make motor insurance companies strictly liable to pay compensation for injuries and losses arising from accidents caused by autonomous vehicles driving themselves on the UK’s public roads. If technological faults are found to have caused the crash, the insurers will have to pay out to the injured victims and will then have to pursue the vehicle manufacturers for financial redress. In theory, this should make it easy for innocent injured victims to receive compensation – but how will things work out in practice?

My concern is focussed around a government statement from Baroness Sugg confirming the AEV Act’s ‘strict liability’ is not intended to cover level three automation, which requires the presence in a vehicle of a fall-back driver who is ready to take control when required and who is capable of responding quickly to a system alert. Such a grey area leaves plenty of potential room for costly and protracted legal argument over culpability between insurers, manufacturers, service garages, drivers, and lawyers – potentially at the expense of seriously-injured road accident victims.

It seems there are many twists and turns in the road ahead for autonomous vehicles. Hopefully there will be no more tragedies along the way, and the promise of automatic compensation for automated failure will eventually be delivered.

For more information on accident and injury law, or for support and advice with a compensation claim, contact the George Ide team on 01243 786668 or email us at info@georgeide.co.uk.

Paul Fretwell. Partner & Head of Personal Injury.

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