Auto industry ponders robot-car liability

Car firms seek to untangle the complex legal issues around driverless cars

Legal questions remain about who will bear responsibility if a driverless car is involved in a crash

Legal questions remain about who will bear responsibility if a driverless car is involved in a crash


The automotive industry has started discussions on the question of who is to blame in the event that a fully-autonomous car is involved in an accident, the chief executive of parts supplier Continental has said. 

However, Elmar Degenhart said the issue - a potential hurdle on the way to a future of robot cars - remains to be solved. 

Continental, which posted more than €1.9 billion in net profit for 2013 and whose stock gained 82 per cent over the course of that year, predicts fully-autonomous driving (with no-driver monitoring necessary) by 2025. 

Autonomous driving has the potential to cut road deaths and injuries as the vast majority of accidents are due to human error. 

The industry is aware, however, that if the driver takes his hands off the wheel and an accident occurs, complex liability questions are set to arise. 

“Who is liable when during partly or fully-autonomous driving the responsibility for what the car does is transferred from the driver to the car. Who is liable for the vehicle: is it the manufacturer, a neutral institution, or . . . [THE PART] supplier?” Mr Degenhart asked. 

One possible solution is the kind of system that protects suppliers of childhood vaccines. Vaccines - like autonomous vehicles - help reduce injury and death but occasionally make people seriously ill. In the US a trust fund compensates people who fall ill due to vaccines and at the same time protects the industry from ruinous lawsuits. 

Mr Degenhart reiterated Continental’s aim to reduce road deaths to zero via a combination of autonomous driving and safety systems. “This is no longer a utopian vision. We are convinced road accidents should end up as commemorative souvenirs in museums,” he said. 

But he insisted that for the insurance industry there is no cause for alarm that drivers will no longer require accident insurance. 

“Quite the contrary, insurance companies encourage the introduction of driver-assistance systems that help to avoid accidents and offer incentives for certain features,” he said. 

 ”I can hardly imagine we will come to a point when we can do without [ACCIDENT] insurance altogether . . . I don’t think the car industry’s business model is threatened.”

Continental, which recently opened a €240m tyre plant in Kaluga, Russia, also sounded a warning about Ukraine. 

“We observe the situation with concern. We can’t believe at the moment that this conflict will dramatically escalate - that can’t be in the interest of Russia or in particular of Europe,” Mr Degenhart said. “One is playing somewhat with fire. We hope the situation will calm in the short term and compromises are found.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014

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