01:13, November 06 91 0 theguardian.com

2017-11-06 01:13:03
Government urged to plug insurance black hole over self-driving cars

Insurance laws will be overhauled to ensure all parties are covered in any accident involving autonomous vehicles, the government has said, in a move that paves the way for self-driving cars to be on UK roads by 2021.

Questions over liability have been seen as a stumbling block in the development of autonomous vehicles. The issue is seen as being particularly acute during any transition period for the technology, when cars will not be fully autonomous and drivers will remain legally in charge of a vehicle even when cars are on autopilot.

Insurers have warned that confusion over responsibility could leave drivers without cover for their own losses in the event of an accident.

The government will rule that future policies must cover injuries to all parties where automated vehicles are involved, the secretary of state for transport, Chris Grayling, will say on Monday. In a speech to insurers in which Grayling will claim self-driving cars will be in use by 2021, he will say: “We are creating a new compulsory insurance framework that covers the use of automated vehicles and when the driver has legitimately handed control to the vehicle. This will ensure that victims have quick and easy access to compensation.”

The Thatcham Research centre, a motoring body funded by the insurance industry, has urged the government to speed up the reforms going through Parliament under the Automated and Electric Vehicles bill. While insurers believe that self-driving cars will eventually cut road accidents, there is concern that cars billed as autonomous could confuse consumers.

Audi launched its A8 model in June, which has an autopilot mode with which the car is able to navigate itself through slow-moving traffic, as well as find a space to park itself in autonomously. However, the legal and insurance implications of these cars are yet to be fully defined.

Although drivers must currently remain in the front seat with their hands on the wheel during semi-autonomous or highly assisted driving, the industry and politicians have raised safety concerns about when drivers have to resume full control. A House of Lords science and technology committee report warned that advanced cars could make “drivers complacent and overly reliant on technology”.

Audi claims its A8, which will be on the roads next year, has reached a level of autonomy classed by engineers as Level 3 – where the car can do most tasks but a driver has to intervene in some circumstances. The Lords report found: “It may be the case that for Level 3 vehicles the risks will be too great to tolerate.”

Ben Howarth, a senior policy adviser at the Association of British Insurers, said: “People could wrongly think their vehicles can be left alone to manage a journey independently. Insurers want to see manufacturers being absolutely clear about how they describe what their vehicles can do.”

Thatcham has drawn up a 10-point checklist of features, which it says manufacturers of automated cars should adhere to, including clearly signalling their automated capabilities and mechanisms to ensure the handover of control from human to machine and back is explicit.

Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham, said the new checklist would help “shine a light into the potentially dangerous grey area semi-automated vehicles could create”. He said that, currently, drivers would not be insured for their own injuries in the event of a crash caused by their vehicle driving autonomously, although they would be able to claim as a passenger in a fully automated car.