Driverless Cars Create Headaches for Insurance Companies

The question is: Can the technology be partly to blame for a road accident or does liability always depend on who was driving at the time?

by Daniela Wiegmann, dpa, Hamburg, Germany / April 2, 2015
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(TNS) -- Self-driving cars are an attractive proposition for motorists, yet the legal implications of these autonomous vehicles are a tricky issue.

Who is to blame when a driverless car collides with another vehicle? This is a grey area and one which insurance companies are now grappling with as the pace of automotive automation quickens.

Driver assistance systems already act autonomously for some of the time, intervening to warn drivers not to ride too close to nearby cars or counteract lane drift. Some can even apply the brakes sharply if a collision looms.

The question is: Can the technology be partly to blame for a road accident or does liability always depend on who was driving at the time?

"At present around 90 per cent of all road accidents are caused by human error, with only 10 per cent attributable to technical faults," said Alexander Vollert, chairman of Germany's major Allianz insurance concern.

With growing gadget support for the driver the degree to which humans can be blamed for accidents is however changing.

"Liability is being transferred from a human at the wheel making in error those humans who developed the system," said Vollert.

Driver aids already have an influence on the premiums charged by insurance companies. Lower rates apply to cars with emergency stop systems which automatically slam on the brakes at speeds below 30 kilometres an hour if the car is in danger of crashing into the rear of the vehicle ahead, said the Allianz man.

Unfortunately, there is no reliable data to prove that assistance systems can actually reduce the risk to drivers and non-passengers such as pedestrians and cyclists.

An expert from Germany's HUK Coburg insurance said it was hard to measure whether an assistance system had influenced the course of a crash. "For an exact analysis we often lack information on whether such a system was even fitted to the car in the first place," said board chairman Wolfgang Weiler. He called for the information to be incorporated into the vehicle's serial number.

Minor fender-benders in city streets may even turn out to be even more expensive since the sensitive high-tech equipment used to aid drivers is easily damaged in car park or traffic queue accidents.

Insurers say heavy weather such as hailstorms will remain a risk along with theft so it is unlikely that having an assistance system on board will drive down premiums.

The man from HUK Coburg believes completely autonomous cars "belong in the realm of science fiction." No one knows when the first fully autonomous cars - such as the one being developed by computer giant Google in the United States - will find their way to German roads.

Allianz has decided to hedge its bets and is prepared to extend cover to the computer-aided drivers. "Naturally we will be able offer driverless cases a suitable level of insurance cover," said Vollert.

Having said that, Vollert said he doubted if driverless cars would ever be let loose on public roads in Germany. The Vienna Road Traffic Convention of 1968, which has been amended down the years, states that "the driver must be in permanent control of the vehicle or his animals."

The last reference to horse-drawn carts and ones pulled by oxen shows just how long in the tooth the regulations have become, said Vollert, urging that the rules be overhauled.

Whatever reforms come into force, a driver must be able to override or stop any system which takes control of the vehicle.

This reduces the chances of drivers being able to take a nap at the wheel but industry see enormous potential for occupying motorists while the computers assume their tasks.

Corporate consultancy company McKinsey has given this aspect some thought and come up with some impressive figures. "Every extra minute in a moving car during which occupants can surf at will in the internet generates a potential five billion euros of global turnover annually."

©2015 Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC