In recent years, self-driving cars have become increasingly prevalent on our roads. While these vehicles can potentially improve safety for drivers and pedestrians alike, accidents are becoming more frequent.
Nine months of recent crash data revealed that of the 367 accidents caused by vehicles with driver-assist technologies, 130 of them involved fully autonomous robotaxis. Therefore, if an accident does happen, you may wonder how fault is determined if there is not an individual behind the wheel.
In the interim, the legislation around the legal responsibility for the actions of driverless cars has not caught up with technology, leaving drivers and insurers alike scrambling to keep up.
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Who’s At Fault In a Self-Driving Car Accident?
For the time being, the procedure following an autonomous vehicle accident works much the same as it does for cars operated by people; the owner of the car who hit you is at fault. Because driverless cars are primarily operated by corporations providing taxi services, that entity is likely to be an organization rather than an individual.
Luckily for human drivers, state minimum car insurance requirements congruently apply to vehicles with autopilot or self-driving capabilities. Therefore, there’s no need to worry if you get into an accident with one of these vehicles; they will have insurance to pay for your damages.
The same would be true if you were in an accident with a vehicle with autopilot features. The owner of the vehicle that is determined to be at fault is fully liable to pay for your damages and must be insured up to state minimums to use the road legally.
How Do You Exchange Information With An Autonomous Vehicle?
Typically following a car crash, the two drivers would pull off the side of the road, exchange insurance information, and let their providers take the wheel from there. If you get into an accident with a self-driving car that has an operator, you would follow the same protocols as you would with any other car.
The same would be true if you get into an accident with an autonomous vehicle without an operator. You would jot down all relevant information, such as its make, model, and license plate number. Your insurance provider could then use these details to get in touch with the insurance company of the driverless vehicle and work out the details.
What Happens If The Crash Is Caused By A Software Malfunction?
We’ve already established the owner of the self-driving vehicle is legally liable for damages when they caused an accident. However, considering autonomous cars rely heavily on computer software to operate, there is a gray area in liability if a software malfunction causes an accident.
It is possible that manufacturers of self-driving cars could be held liable for defects in design or manufacture that cause accidents. This could include faulty software or hardware components that cause an autonomous vehicle to malfunction and result in an accident. In addition, manufacturers could potentially also be held liable for inadequate warnings about potential risks associated with using their vehicles.
However, for now, these situations will be judged on a case-by-case basis while new laws are developed.
What is a Self-Driving Car?
Any vehicle capable of navigating metropolitan roadways, interpreting traffic control devices, and assessing and reacting to risk would meet the legal definition of an autonomous vehicle. This includes those meant to be used without drivers (like those currently in use as cabs) and those meant to assist drivers (such as those owned by individuals.) However, under the driverless car umbrella, six classifications refer to specific types of autonomous vehicles.
Autonomous Vehicle Classifications
Autonomous vehicles fall into six classifications, from full driver engagement to completely independent operation:
Level 1: These vehicles offer minor driver assistance and remain the most common vehicles on the road today, typically offering basic cruise control with driver control of gas and brakes.
Level 2: Level 2 vehicles allow you to take your hands off the wheel after engaging cruise control. These cars can accelerate and brake independently, allowing the driver to take over when necessary; most self-driving cars currently on the market fall within this niche.
Level 3: These vehicles can make complex circumstantial decisions and react accordingly, ideally allowing the driver to take their eyes off the road.
Level 4: A Level 4 vehicle is almost fully autonomous. Robotaxi companies have begun to employ these vehicles in designated, contained metropolitan areas.
Level 5: This is a fully autonomous, hyper-sensitive vehicle that would go as far as to allow drivers to sleep in the back seat during operation. While we haven’t quite reached this plateau, designers predict Level 5 vehicles will fill the streets in the not-so-distant future.
The Pros and Cons of Self-Driving Cars
Advocates of driverless vehicles believe they will lower accident rates and save lives while saving taxpayers millions, mainly in the form of reduced fossil fuel consumption, crash-related costs, and medical expenses. Autonomous driving could also help alleviate congestion and provide better transportation access to areas underserved by public transit.
On the other hand, many worry that autonomous cars will cost taxi drivers, delivery drivers, truckers, and many other working-class Americans their jobs. Security issues like hacking and machine error pose their own unique predicaments, as do machine morality issues. Machines cannot choose between two adverse outcomes empathetically, as drivers periodically need to do in a crisis.
Safety Issues with Autonomous Vehicles
Overall, several bodies believe that self-driving cars will improve safety conditions on the road, as most car accidents occur due to human error or distraction. In 2011, alcohol was behind 39% of roadway fatalities, leading us to assume this number would drop drastically if inebriated drivers could relinquish control to fully self-driving cars. Even features of Level 1 and 2 vehicles with partial automation should dramatically reduce non-fatal accidents and parking lot scrape-ups.
Most experts see the major safety concerns with self-driving cars to pertain more to data security and software issues, including:
- Hacking: The “brain” of a self-driving vehicle exists within a complex web of network connections that must work correctly to ensure safe operation. As we’ve seen with many other forms of advanced technology, hackers might find a way to tap into these networks and create chaos.
- Computer defects or external inhibitions: While technology has come a long way in the past few decades, computers often still glitch or are affected by physical defects that inhibit them from functioning correctly. Heavy weather, like snow, fog, or blinding sunlight, could also impair and mislead the sensors and cameras guiding self-driving cars.
- Minimized driver interaction: The ultimate goal of autonomous vehicles, drivers paying less attention to the road could still lead to easily preventable accidents during this interim development period.
The Future of Insurance for Self-Driving Cars
Many speculate that as self-driving cars begin to dominate the roadways, the number of car crashes and fatalities will drop significantly. As these numbers decrease and accident liability shifts more onto the shoulders of manufacturers, designers, and municipalities, insurance laws and requirements could evolve to universal no-fault coverage.
Experts believe that insurance legislation will, in turn, shift from a state-to-state concern to a federally regulated program whenever self-driving crash statistics become more uniform and predictable under automation. That said, the current reality of automated vehicle insurance meets the same standards as typical human-operated vehicles.
How Much Does Insurance for an Autonomous Vehicle Cost?
According to Kelley Blue Book, the national average cost of car insurance for standard vehicles in 2021 was $1,633 annually. By comparison, the average insurance cost for a Tesla Model 3 with autonomous capabilities is $2,115 per year, nearly 30% higher. As of now, owners of self-driving cars typically pay higher premiums, as newer cars with heftier price tags carry a more significant potential for loss.
However, if car accident rates decrease the way experts project they will under automation, car insurance rates should drop accordingly.