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ESV Korea: Autonomous cars pose liability challenge for safety engineers and insurance companies

ESV Seoul: Autonomous cars pose liability challenge for safety engineers and insurance companies
Tristan Honeywill

On day three of the ESV Vehicle Safety Conference in Seoul, Anders Eugensson of Volvo Cars opened proceedings with a legal perspective on autonomous cars.

He naturally argued that safety will be the main factor in the growth of driverless vehicles.

On the big question as to who is really responsible for the vehicle, Eugensson said that if a car maker asks the driver to hand control to their vehicle, they have to be liable for any consequences. If the driver’s still supposed to be watching the road, then they are still at least partly liable.

Matthew Avery, chief researcher at Thatcham, the UK insurance industry’s research organisation, wasn’t so sure about this: the current consensus among UK and US insurers is that liability will remain with the driver. “They make a choice by getting into the car and pressing the button to activate the auto-pilot,” he said.

It’s clear that it’s going to be a challenging issue legally that will have to be sorted out step by step. It’s likely to be a generational change. Eugensson made the observation that while mature drivers think of smart phones as a distraction while driving, young people already see driving as the distraction, disrupting their connectivity.

In the subsequent Thatcham presentation, it was revealed that 5% of the UK vehicle fleet already has an autonomous emergency braking system fitted as standard and many more are having the technology fitted as an option. The process is already underway it seems.


“Drivers make a choice when they get a car and pressing the button to activate the auto-pilot”

Matthew Avery,
chief researcher at Thatcham

The sense of progress was harder to find in some of the other sessions. Among the people looking at crash protection issues, there were several indications that further advances are starting to become lees economical for manufacturers.

There was a presentation that sought to show that additional pole impact testing would cost the industry billions and save only a handful of people each year. It sounded like the kind of research conducted to lobby governments. The assumptions on cost were dissected in the Q&A session.

I also caught the end of a paper presenting details of the testing of an external airbag for the front of cars to make side impacts less serious. A few years ago, there were a few studies that looked at this to make SUVs hitting city cars less of a disaster. These days however it seems common sense to have a system that just stops the accident from happening.

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