Insurance Academy

Guest Post: Who Is Liable When No One Is Driving? Part 2

By | February 21, 2018

We are grateful for friend of the Academy, Christopher J. Boggs, CPCU, ARM, ALCM, LPCS, AAI, APA, CWCA, CRIS, AINS, Executive Director, Big “I” Virtual University who provided this blog series about autonomous vehicles.

Last week, Chris introduced us to the concept of an “Automotive Generation” and introduced us to the topic of auto liability as it relates to autonomous vehicles. If you missed last week’s post, you can go back and read it here. Let’s get to this week’s content.

How We Get “There” From “Here”

To move to and through the automotive generations leading to a fully autonomous society, the automotive industry must maneuver through several levels of vehicular “autonomy.” Each successive level presents unique liability issues and include:

  • Driver-controlled with autonomous assistance: This is where vehicles are now. Modern vehicles are already equipped with and utilize autonomous assistance. Some technology provides minor assistance and other technology give “primary” assistance. Examples of minor assistance technology includes technology that notifies the driver when a car is in its blind spot; lane departure warnings and audible notifications when an object is close to the car. “Primary” assistance technology currently in use includes technology that slows or stops the car in an emergency and autonomous, hands-free parallel parking;
  • Autonomous availability of key functions: The technology already exists for this level, but such technology is generally found in only a limited number of brands or the most expensive vehicles. Autonomy of key functions includes the ability of the vehicle to drive itself on major roads and return control to the driver when navigating secondary and other streets. This level utilizes advanced acceleration and breaking technology already existing; but the vehicle itself cannot predictably or safely navigate traffic lights, stop signs, or traffic conditions. A trained driver is required.
  • Optional vehicle autonomy: A driver is still needed for this evolutionary level; but the majority of driving decisions are turned over to the vehicle. At this level of change, the driver may simply input the desired destination and allow the car to autonomously navigate major and some secondary roads, but only in areas with the necessary infrastructure is in place. Plus, some traffic situations and conditions are beyond the capabilities of the technology;
  • Infrastructural technologically-limited autonomy: Vehicles have the ability to operate on a fully autonomous basis, the only area lacking is infrastructure. At this level of transition, all new vehicle technology outperforms a human driver; however, not all roads are equipped to assist the vehicle requiring a human driver be available to take control when needed; and
  • Fully autonomous: This is the point when vehicle technology and infrastructure technology converge. All new vehicles have the necessary technology to operate without a driver and all roads are equipped with the necessary technology to effectively drive the vehicle. No driver is needed, just a destination.

The question is, how many automotive generations are necessary to move through these five phases? Remember, the answer depends on the speed of technological development, technological installation and maybe most importantly, social acceptance.

As the driver becomes “less important,” the concept and assignment of legal liability may shift. But such shift may take some very interesting twists and turns.

How do You Become Legally Liable?

Before addressing the changing assignments of legal liability as the US progresses towards full vehicle autonomy, legal liability’s basic concepts must be understood. We must understand how a person or entity becomes or is assigned legally liable for injury or damage.

Legal liability is liability imposed by the courts on the person or entity responsible for the injury or damage suffered by another party or individual. “Legal liability” exists when:

  • The wrongdoer is found guilty of “Negligent Conduct;”
  • The injured party suffers actual damages; and
  • The wrongdoer’s “Negligent Conduct” is the proximate cause of the injury or damage.

(A more in-depth article on these concepts is found here. It is available to only Big I members.)

Does increased vehicle autonomy alter the concept of “Negligent conduct”? This may be the most important question and concept in the autonomous vehicle discussion. Negligent conduct is created by the failure of the person to act or behave in the manner that a reasonably prudent person would act in the same or a similar situation. To be guilty of negligent conduct, there must be:

  • A duty to act or not act in a certain way; and
  • A breach of that duty.

As the driver becomes less and less important in or necessary to the operation of the vehicle, his or her duty changes. In fact, as vehicles become more and more autonomous, duty migrates away from the driver. To whom does the duty migrate? That’s the hard question to answer.

Next week: Assigning legal liability during the progression to full autonomy.

Christopher J. Boggs, CPCU, ARM, ALCM, LPCS, AAI, APA, CWCA, CRIS, AINS, is Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America (IIABA or the Big “I”) Virtual University executive director. He joined the Big “I” team in November 2016. His current duties involve researching, writing, and teaching property and casualty insurance coverages and concepts to Big “I” members and others in the insurance industry.

About Christopher J. Boggs

Christopher J. Boggs joined the insurance industry in 1990. He is currently the Executive Director, Big I Virtual University and former Vice President of Education for Insurance Journal's Academy of Insurance. More from Christopher J. Boggs

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