Who will take responsibility for driverless cars?

Gogole Lexus
Google's driverless Lexus has completed 300,000 test miles. Image: Google
"How driverless cars will affect the car insurance industry in the long run will largely depend on how we react to it now - ignoring it is not an option"
  • | by Emily Bater

Driverless cars could start appearing on British roads in 2015, the government has announced. However, questions have been raised over who would be responsible for the vehicles in the event of accidents.

Gocompare.com's head of innovation and insight Tom Lewis said: "The trials of automated vehicles have so far indicated that there are potential safety and congestion management benefits but the question of liability in the event of a collision needs to be resolved. Will the owner of a driverless car need to obtain insurance, or will liability be held by the manufacturer?"

New rules will allow trials of driverless cars on public roads for the first time, meaning we could see computer-controlled cars cruising along beside us as early as January next year.

The idea of a driverless car may seem far-fetched, but Lewis points out that the technology to make it possible has been around for longer than many of us realise.

"The widespread adoption of features such as traffic sign recognition, adaptive cruise control and collision evasion demonstrate just how close the technology is to being fully realised," he said.

"The rise of technologically assisted driving will continue but it is important that governments, manufacturers and insurers work together to ensure consumers remain protected."

The insurance angle

Further down the road, Lewis reckons that there could come a time where drivers are penalised with higher insurance premiums if they choose not to rely on a computer.

Lewis added: "It is clear that this technology is moving into the mainstream, and as an industry we have to move with the times and make sure we have the right products and policies in place to safeguard our customers' motoring future - automated or not.

"How driverless cars will affect the car insurance industry in the long run will largely depend on how we react to it now - ignoring it is not an option.

Late off the mark?

Business secretary Vince Cable announced the plan at an automotive research firm in the Midlands, estimating that we would see driverless cars on roads in less than six months.

"We want Britain to be a centre of research, we want our own car industry to be ahead of the field and it requires a combination of technology and work on regulation and… other features," said Cable. "What we're interested in looking at is more ambitious ideas, about how you bring in satellites so that different cars can co-operate with each other to reduce congestion."

A £10m fund has been created and will be awarded to three towns or cities to develop as a testing ground for driverless cars.  The tests are intended to run for 18 to 36 months, and locations have until the start of October to apply.

Cable said that the government has to look at implications for the law, for regulations and for safety.

He noted that driverless cars are "potentially a lot safer as you're reducing human risk".

Driving regulations and the Highway Code will have to be amended to provide for autonomous cars, and self-driving cars will need to adhere to safety and driving laws.

In George Osborne's National Infrastructure Plan, the chancellor last year announced the UK's plan to join in the race to develop driverless technology.

"Looking forward, driverless cars are innovative technology that will change the way the world's towns and cities look and the way people travel. They present opportunities for the British automotive industry in the manufacture of the cars and the wider science and engineering sectors in the design of towns," said the report.

The report said that the government would review legislative and regulatory framework in a bid to show developers that the UK is the right place to develop and test the new technology.

But some might argue that the UK is too late to position itself as the location for innovation - US states including California, Florida and Nevada have already approved testing of the vehicles, while Nissan tested Japan's first driverless car in 2013.

In May last year, Google announced plans to manufacture 100 self-driving cars

Previously the search engine company had modified hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius and Lexus RX 450H to run without a driver, but its newest prototype has no pedals or steering wheel - just a stop-start button.