Who’s At Fault Unclear In Driverless Car Crashes

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Washington — Automakers are rushing to put self-driving cars on the road, but questions remain about who will be responsible for accidents that occur when vehicles are in control of primary driving tasks.

A consumer safety group is trying to get ahead of the problem by pushing automakers to assume responsibility for crashes involving self-driving cars that they are testing now. To date, no manufacturers have made such a pledge to the Safe Autonomous Vehicles (SAVe) Campaign. Carmakers argue existing state insurance laws that determine liability are sufficient.

The debate occurs as Apple Inc. signaled Friday it’s in the autonomous vehicle game: California OK’d Apple’s application to test three self-driving Lexus SUVs. General Motors Co. plans to put as many as 300 more self-driving vehicles on the road, according to government filings; GM already is testing more than 50 self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs on public roads in Detroit, San Francisco and Scottsdale, Arizona.

Against that backdrop, the SAVe Campaign says it has challenged executives from Audi, BMW, Daimler, Fiat, Ford, GM, Honda, Land Rover, Lyft, Nissan, Porsche, Tesla, Toyota, Uber, Volvo and Volkswagen to agree to take responsibility for future self-driving car crashes that occur at the highest levels of automated driving.

Jeremy Warriner, national SAVe Campaign spokesman and motor vehicle accident victims’ advocate, said his campaign supports the development of self-driving cars, but he thinks automakers should be willing to stand behind their products.

“It’s an important technology that has to be developed,” he told The Detroit News on Tuesday, pointing out that it will benefit many people who are restrained in their mobility. “It’s just got to be done safely.”

Volvo promised several months ago it would be willing to assume responsibility for crashes involving self-driving cars. Håkan Samuelsson, president and chief executive of Volvo Cars, said in a high-profile speech at the Swedish Embassy in Washington in October 2015 that Volvo would “accept full liability whenever one if its cars is in autonomous mode.”

Samuelsson warned that there could be extenuating circumstances that lead to self-driving car crashes that are beyond his company’s control such as hacking, which he defined as a criminal activity.

“We are constantly evolving defensive software to counter the risks associated with hacking a car,” Samuelsson said then. “We do not blame Apple, or Microsoft for computer viruses or hackers.”

However, Volvo did not respond to the challenge to accept liability for self-driving autos from SAVe, and the company did not respond to a request for comment from The News.

Harry Lightsey, executive director of global connected-customer public policy at GM, said his company believes existing insurance laws that are usually decided by states will be sufficient for self-driving cars.

“There’s 100 years of legal precedent,” he said. “We don’t see a reason why that should be changed for autonomous vehicles. We stand behind our product. Just like we stand behind our products that we put on the road today, we still stand behind our autonomous vehicles when we put these on the road.”

Lightsey added that since self-driving cars will be “even safer than vehicles that are driven by a person, we don’t think anything extraordinary needs to be done.”

He said GM’s plan is to initially develop self-driving cars that are deployed in limited geographic areas: “We would own them, so obviously we would accept responsibility for those.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation has signaled in guidance for self-driving cars issued in September that it agrees states should continue to regulate liability issues that arise for autonomous vehicles.

A series of Michigan laws enacted last year are designed to allow wide latitude for automakers to test and operate self-driving vehicles on public roads. The law says computer systems that are operating cars autonomously without a human operator will be considered the operator of a vehicle if they can “satisfy electronically all physical acts” that are required of a driver.

Jeff Cranson, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said “liability laws were not modified under the bills,” but he added that the issue is a key topic for the state’s Council on Future Mobility created in December. Cranson said the panel has had one meeting so far, but has issued no recommendations.

President Donald Trump’s administration has also promised to review self-driving guidelines and other pending regulations put in place by the Obama administration.

Consumer advocates have vehemently disagreed that states are equipped to regulate self-driving car liability.

“We’ve already seen companies like Tesla and Uber blame the human instead,” said John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group. He was referring to a fatal crash in 2016 in Florida that involved a distracted driver operating a 2015 Tesla Model S with its automated driving system activated, and to a more recent accident in Arizona that involved a self-driving Volvo operated by Uber that flipped onto its side after another vehicle failed to yield.

“In the long run, taking responsibility will help the companies,” Simpson continued. “If they don’t trust their own technology, how could consumers ever trust them and adopt self-driving cars?”

James Lynch, vice president of data and information services and chief actuary of the New York-based Insurance Information Institute, said automakers are already held responsible for crashes if they are found to be caused by faulty parts in most cases. He acknowledged the liability picture become more murky when cars are fully autonomous.

“We kind of have that now,” he said of the idea of holding automakers responsible for accidents caused by faulty products.

“What it depends on is who the courts or the adjudication process finds to be at fault,” he said. “It could be with the manufacturer if there are defective parts. It could be with the state if they didn’t update their signs, or it could be with the driver if they didn’t download an update they needed to. But whoever the liability sits with, they’re probably going to have insurance.”

Auto companies have been pushing for lax regulations that will allow for widespread self-driving car testing. They have largely tried to steer clear of thorny liability issues that will have to be solved before autonomous cars can roll on U.S. roads, arguing that cars that are fully autonomous will be much less accident-prone than vehicles are today.

“Automakers expect to assume responsibility for properly utilized systems they design and install in a vehicle at the time of assembly,” said Daniel Gage, senior director of communications and public affairs at Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for U.S. automakers in Washington.

Gage said automakers are more worried about safety during the interim period when cars are partially self-driving using modes like autopilot are operating on roads alongside cars being driven by humans than they are about fully autonomous vehicles. He said most automakers have opted to focus on developing fully autonomous vehicle that can take over the driving task completely.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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