How Volvo Is Answering The Biggest Question On Autonomous Vehicle Liability

December 28, 2015  |  By Michael O'Shea  |       

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Everyone knows who's at fault when a human messes up, but as we rely more on robots for everyday tasks many are wondering who pays for any errors. This obviously applies to autonomous cars. Rather than just sit back and let everyone else hash out this complex problem, Volvo has stepped up in a big way, saying it will take full responsibility for any crashes its vehicles cause while in autonomous mode.

This is a huge development, because right now lawmakers not just in the United States but around the world are struggling with determining liability for cars that can drive themselves.

Potential Parties

There are several potential parties that could be blamed for a crash that involves one or more autonomous vehicles. While some might think the issue is pretty straightforward, breaking it down quickly reveals how complex it can get.

The parties with potential liability include:

Automakers: They design and make the cars and so should rightfully shoulder at least part of the blame if the machine doesn't work as it should. By stepping up and saying it takes on all of the liability, Volvo is putting pressure on other automakers to do the same or risk consumers questioning just how safe their products are.

Vehicle Owners: Today, when your car's in a crash, you have at least some responsibility for the situation. In the future it might not seem fair to blame the owner for the decisions the vehicle made by itself.

Cities/Counties:
 Not as obvious of a choice, but poor lane markings, blocked street signs and other factors could potentially confuse autonomous drive systems or otherwise contribute to a crash.

Other Drivers:
 If you hit a car, even if it can competently drive itself, should you shoulder the responsibility for the damage? It's true that self-driving cars can often see and avoid accidents well before they happen, but sometimes a collision is inevitable if the other driver isn't being careful.

Hackers:
this is a scary possibility, but it's one that even Volvo's CEO Hakan Samuelsson has brought up. If hackers are able to gain access to certain functions of an autonomous car, they would then be responsible for a crash that resulted, whether intentional or not.

Hampering a Revolution

Volvo's Samuelsson has expressed very real concern about these questions of autonomous vehicle liability. As people have wondered how to assign blame in such a crash, a serious threat to the adoption of this new technology is cropping up.

Many people have a fear of cutting-edge advancements. While such technologies might be exciting and full of possibilities for some, others worry about the many ways these innovations could go horribly wrong.

Even though Volvo has only said it will take responsibility for autonomous vehicle crashes and hasn't disclosed any real details yet, it's already helped ease at least some minds. The truth is that fear could hold the adoption of this cutting-edge technology back for years, effectively pouring cold water on the fire of revolution.

U.S. Technological Leadership

According to Samuelsson, the United States is in a tricky position right now. If it doesn't take the necessary steps to clear up confusion and big questions about laws and regulations governing autonomous vehicles, it could fall behind in the race to technological superiority.

Europe's ability to move forward with autonomous vehicle technology has been seriously damaged by inaction and disorder from the various governments. Samuelsson fears that the United States could be not too far behind in also holding up self-driving vehicles, but it's still not too late to take necessary actions.

Volvo's move is critical in getting a productive conversation going. By helping clear up at least a good portion of the liability discussion, lawmakers and others are free to focus on preparing for a bright autonomous vehicle future.

Other areas of concern involve:

  • National Standards: NHTSA needs to apply consistent rules to facilitate interstate travel. This includes using uniform signs and lane markings in each state.

  • Cybersecurity Requirements: As has been demonstrated lately, hackers can gain access to at least some vehicle functions remotely. Addressing such vulnerabilities would help guard against potential disasters.

  • Autonomous Vehicle Testing: The government needs a way to assess autonomous vehicles to determine if they're safe to use on public roads. This could involve something similar to the forward collision mitigation tests used by IIHS currently.

  • Legislation on Liability: Congress needs to pass clear laws on accident liabilities and related issues with self-driving cars, which would help adoption of the technology continue forward.
What do you think about Volvo’s decision to take vehicle liability on its autonomous vehicles?

Topics: Autonomous/Driverless Cars

Michael O'Shea

Michael O’Shea is the Founder and CEO of Abalta Technologies. He is responsible for all aspects of executive management of Abalta and a direct participant in many client engagements, particularly in management advisory projects.

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