The central dictum of the BMVI (Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure) Ethics Committee on autonomous driving is refreshingly clear and explicit: “Human protection takes priority over all other considerations of usefulness”, the new systems were to “primarily improve the security of all road users”, was the position of the first two in a total of twenty theses. That may sound obvious, but it is nonetheless an important point as it classifies technological progress as a means of serving society. Even if the car industry is developing autonomous driving for its customers, the automobile revolution does not just apply to the buyers of these cars, but also to pedestrians, cyclists and anyone else sharing the open road with these self-driving vehicles. Only when this public space with its new technology becomes safer for everyone, will society accept and approve highly-automated or self-driving cars.
Many responsible parties – one contact person for accident victims
However, there is more to road safety than successfully avoiding losses. Just as important, if not more so, are clear rules in the event of an accident. The allocation of responsibility is usually straightforward today, as most accidents result from driver error. That will remain the case for the foreseeable future, but it will change over time as highly-automated and then fully-autonomous driving gradually removes the driver from the spotlight and driving becomes more of a collaborative exercise. The Ethics Committee identified almost a dozen parties who could share responsibility for accidents involving driverless cars: there are drivers, owners and manufacturers plus IT service providers, mobile providers, operators of digital networks and providers of digital maps. They all share responsibility – and liability.
However, this added complexity will not affect accident victims. As cars on the road pose what is known as an “operational risk”, there are some straightforward rules which apply to autonomous driving even now: regardless of the reason for a motoring-related loss – the victim will be compensated by the owner’s motor vehicle liability insurance. People who suffer road accidents thus benefit from having one competent contact partner, as opposed to being shunted around among different potentially liable parties. Anyone who is involved in an accident in Germany can rely on that, both now and in the future.
Recourse must be an option for liability insurers
At the same time, this does not give carte blanche to the other parties responsible for driverless cars. Anyone who brings inadequately tested or faulty systems to market or technology that is liable to fail, must also face the consequences of their actions under the law. Where this responsibility lies in terms of autonomous driving will be the outcome of protracted proceedings with the associated commitment of human and financial resources resulting in a legal ruling. As such, it is a job for liability insurers, not for accident victims.
Jörg von Fürstenwerth
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