Driverless cars are receiving extensive coverage in the media generally but very little in the legal press, even though solicitors’ firms are likely to be among the most affected businesses.
How many personal injury cases have you dealt with, or heard of, arising from the use of driverless trains? The Victoria Line on the London Underground was the first – in 1967 – and has been joined by the Central, Jubilee and Northern Lines and the inter-terminal trains at Gatwick and Stansted Airports. There are hundreds of driverless railway systems worldwide.
True it is that there are generally no other drivers on the railways, but therein lies the rub.
Virtually all statistics show that over 90% of road traffic accidents are caused by driver error. Take driving out of the equation and that should mean 90% fewer accidents, 90% fewer road traffic accidents and 90% fewer road traffic accident fee earners.
There are likely to be some accidents even in a driverless world, but based on the tests to date they will be few and far between, and in any event are unlikely to end up in the hands of typical road traffic claimant lawyers.
Volvo has already announced that it will cover all loss involving any of its vehicles and that example is expected to be followed by most, if not all, motor manufacturers.
Any lawsuits are likely to be between car manufacturers and software suppliers or the Highway Agency or whichever body is responsible for road and system maintenance. These are likely to be heavyweight product liability cases, not the general territory of portal lawyers.
The gathering pace of technological and legal developments is astonishing. One fact says it all: the Department of Transport Consultation Paper – Pathway to Driverless Cars: Proposals to Support Advanced Driver Assistance Systems and Automated Vehicle Technologies – on potential changes to the Highway Code, the Road Traffic Acts and insurance law was issued before the Consultation Paper on increasing the personal injury small claims limit and scrapping or restricting general damages claims in minor soft tissue injury cases. The consultation closed on 9 September 2016
Privately some senior figures are wondering if there is any point in the small claims limit and soft tissue reforms as driverless cars will quickly make them redundant.
As the paper itself says “This consultation represents a major step on the pathway to driverless cars .It starts a rolling programme of reform that will keep our regulations up to date, ensuring we can safely take advantage of what automated vehicles can offer, tailored to near-to-market technologies.”
So what is the timescale?
Ford expect to be mass producing driverless cars for use by 2021 and Google by 2020. Ford has announced that it is proceeding straight to Level 4 and Level 5 driverless cars that is they will not bother with Levels 1, 2 and 3 transitional hybrid cars. Level 4 is for use in a city area and Level 5 is full autonomy in any driving conditions or location. (Statement by Ford President Mark Fields– Palo Alto, California, 16 August 2016).
These are United States terms but have been adopted, with slight amendments, by the UK government. The UK Level 5 definition is “System can control lateral AND longitudinal movement in all use cases. Driver intervention is not needed”.
Ford has for some time described itself as a technology company, not simply a car manufacturer and now says it is an “auto and mobility company”.
The Google Self-Driving Car Testing Report on Disengagement of Autonomous Mode, December 2015, contains a wealth of statistics on the first year of testing in California, generally in a city environment, which involves far greater problems than freeways.
Where the software detects an issue with the autonomous vehicle that may affect its safe operation it immediately hands controls over to the driver. In the fourth quarter of 2014 that was occurring on average every 785 miles. A year later that was down to once every 5,318 miles.
Driver initiated disengagement occurs with a similar frequency, usually due to perceived problems with unpredictable behaviour by drivers of ordinary cars.
The report lists every instance of disengagement and the date and the reason.
Google has also announced that it is going straight to Level 4. Such cars are “designed for very specific urban environments. It’s a car that’s going to take people at 20-30 mph through city centres.” – Wayne Cunningham – Managing Editor of Motoring News.
In August 2016 in Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, Uber started using self-driving taxis, albeit with a driver available to take over, and also with an observer. The fleet is a mixture of Volvo XC 90 Sport utility vehicles and Ford Focus cars.
Initial changes in the law to allow remote parking and hands off driving on motorways, but with driver overrides still available, are expected in the United Kingdom in 2018, with fully driverless cars, that is with no steering wheel or pedals or any facility for anyone to take control, by the mid-2020s. Many think it will be earlier.
Almost everyone agrees that the major benefits in safety, increased speed and lack of congestion and improved fuel economy come when driving is banned and all cars must be driverless. That is likely to be a social and political hot potato.
The benefits to the state are significant – “big prizes” in the words of the Department of Transport. Time off work through injury and payment of benefits will slump. NHS expenditure on treatment of road traffic accident victims will slump. Fuel consumption will fall sharply as vehicles are “platooned”, that is effectively made into a type of train.
The benefits to society and its members are enormous. Those with limited mobility, including disabled people and elderly people will have a new lease of life. Families will not be devastated by the death or serious injury of a loved one in a car crash.
There will be losers, including professional drivers, but entertainment generally, including pubs, restaurants, sporting events, theatres etc. are likely to benefit.
Much of the personal injury claims sector will disappear.
Driverless cars will make the small claims limit/soft tissue injury debate look like the proverbial vicar’s tea party as far as road traffic firms are concerned.
Many lawyers struggle to have a five minute plan, let alone a five year plan, but if you do have a five year plan and you do road traffic work the impact of driverless cars on your practice should be the number one item.
In September 2016 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the United States Department of Transportation, published its detailed policy on driverless cars and that is entitled Federal Automated Vehicles Policy – Accelerating the Next Revolution in Roadway Safety, and, as the name suggests, it applies to all states of the United States of America.
The front cover says it all: a picture of a car with the back seats in the usual positions and the front seats with their back to the windscreen facing the other passengers.
On 13 October 2016 President Barack Obama hosted a summit in Pittsburgh bringing together car makers to talk about ways to speed up the use of autonomous vehicles.
The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee is holding an enquiry into the use of driverless cars and written submissions closed on 26 October and the House of Lords took oral evidence in November 2016.