The Blame Game: Who will be liable when autonomous vehicles crash?
Israel’s Ministry of Justice asked the public to weigh in on regulations for self-driving cars. One thing’s for certain — expect insurance premiums to rise
Last week, Israelis got a sneak peek into the world of autonomous vehicle regulations, but surprisingly the glimpse into the intricacies and complications the regulations entail didn’t come from the Ministry of Transportation, but rather from the Ministry of Justice.The Ministry of Transportation often prefers to simply turn a blind eye to the plethora of autonomous vehicle experiments that take place in Israel. Sometimes it is for the better, like when it prefers to stay away from ribbon-cuttings and taking credit for Israeli genius, but occasionally it is for the worse like when Mobileye’s autonomous car ran a red light.
In contrast to the Ministry of Transportation, whose senior officials are always happy to put their names on anything that is related to the autonomous car market, the duties the Ministry of Justice deals with are far more critical and practical: It has to determine what will happen when autonomous vehicles that drive on Israeli highways get involved in an accident?The Justice Ministry last week released its first call to the Israeli public “to assume a position in the field of damages and insurance.” While the general public is unlikely to turn to the Justice Ministry offering a firm opinion on the matter, insurance companies will certainly do so by the end of the month for a very simple reason: while autonomous vehicle manufacturers promise an accident-free future, in reality such cars aren’t yet completely safe and raises quite a few questions, such as what happens when a pedestrian jumps into the street, or what the future will look like when for several decades autonomous vehicles will have to share the road with human-operated vehicles regular vehicles, and who will be responsible when a driverless car will have to “assume liability” for a car accident. Although the ministry’s document isn’t lengthy, it fascinatingly described Israel’s real attitude towards autonomous vehicles, and particularly the rising fears over what will happen when Israeli drivers first encounter autonomous vehicles on the road. Frightening forecasts predict expensive insurance plans Most of the ministry’s emphasis appears in the clauses that relate to the unique characteristics of autonomous vehicles, specifically to the complications that they raise in regard to liability in the case of damages. Despite the high level of detail, the document doesn’t provide answers to the infinite number of problematic issues that may arise. One of the primary issues the document raises is who’s to blame in the case of an accident when there is no human driver? Who will need to pay in case of damages? Will it be the car’s owner or the car’s manufacturer? Global automakers are likely to refuse to pay for system failures, which will require a certified inspector to investigate any accidents, even if the damage only costs a few thousand shekels. Another scenario relates to cases in which the human driver does take responsibility, but it isn’t clear to what degree. Self-driving vehicles are divided into different levels of autonomy, ranging from one to five, with five being fully autonomous. In level four, the human driver takes control of the vehicle only in an emergency, in which case an entire new calculation of the equation is required to determine to what degree the driver was responsible, since it’s unclear at which stage the human driver will intervene, when the vehicle’s system alerts the driver to intervene, or how much discretion the driver has, or whether their involvement was even necessary or not. Situations may arise where a driver of a level four autonomous vehicle will have intervened in the driving process, causing the vehicle to be involved in the accident. It could be argued that the vehicle could have resolved the problem on its own, without assistance from the driver, but then insurance company investigators will have to be even more clever and connect to the vehicle’s computerized system to assess whether it was the driver or the vehicle that caused the accident. Those types of scenarios are an actuary nightmare for insurance companies and it isn’t yet clear how Israeli insurance companies intend to cope with situations that will arise in the next five to 15 years. What is safe to say is that these scenarios will likely cause insurance prices to skyrocket.