The race towards successful autonomous – or driverless – cars continues at high speed. However, the insurance industry has raised concerns that the UK is woefully under-prepared for their arrival. Insurance professionals are calling for the urgent overhauling of the laws dealing with insurance in order to review the issue of autonomous cars, which are expected to be on UK roads by 2021.

Liability issues

Questions around liability have already been one of the stumbling blocks for the roll-out of driverless cars, especially during the period where they won’t be entirely driverless. The driver will be legally in charge – even when the vehicle is using autopilot. Insurers are concerned that this could lead to confusion over responsibility and could mean drivers face uninsured losses.

Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport, said that the government would rule that future policies must cover injuries to all parties where driverless vehicles are involved. In a speech to insurers, he went on to say that self-driving cars would be in use by 2021 and that a new compulsory insurance framework would be required to cover these vehicles, including the issue of drivers having legal control.

In addition, the Thatcham Research Centre, a motoring body funded by the insurance industry, has urged the government to speed up the reforms currently covered under the Automated and Electric Vehicles bill. The research organisation believes that, while self-driving cars will eventually cut road accidents, the current situation with semi-autonomous vehicles will confuse people.

(Credit – Flickr User)

On the road

The Audi A8 was launched in June. It has an autopilot mode in which the car can navigate through slow-moving traffic, in addition to being able to park itself. However, the legal and insurance implications of this have yet to be confirmed. Drivers in the front seat have their hands on the wheel during these manoeuvres, but the insurance industry has raised concerns about when the driver takes back full control.

The A8 is due to be on the road next year. It has reached a level of autonomy classed by engineers as level 3. This means the car does most of the tasks, though the driver is required to intervene at certain points. According to the Association of British Insurers, many people wrongly think the vehicle can manage the whole journey, which isn’t the case.

Autonomous checklist

Thatcham has drawn up a ten-point checklist of features that it believes manufacturers of autonomous cars should follow. These include transparent signalling of independent capabilities and systems to ensure that handover back to the driver is clear to understand. It would certainly help deal with potential grey areas where a driver would not be insured for their injuries when a car was driving autonomously, although passengers would.

Currently, the levels of automation recognised in the industry include:

Level 0 – no automation
Level 1 – driver assistant
Level 2 – partial automation
Level 3 – conditional automation
Level 4 – high automation
Level 5 – full automation

Level 3 upwards involves the automated driving system monitoring the driving environment to make decisions about driving.

Driverless in the US

Testing of driverless cars in the US is well ahead of what the UK has experienced. Both the national and state governments seem keen to continue advancing the tests. Driverless cars have hit several milestones already, including the first without a backup driver in Arizona. Google’s parent company Alphabet has also announced a fleet of modified Chrysler Pacifica minivans, which will undergo testing on the roads of Phoenix.

The US authorities are already looking at solutions for problems we have yet to consider here in the UK. For example, how do we handle driverless cars on the motorway? And how will they interact with smart motorways? In the US, the authorities are considering having driverless car lanes on some interstates. But how will the vehicles handle traffic jams or roadworks? While the growth of the driverless cars continues, there are still many questions to be answered and the UK needs to push ahead urgently in order to be ready for the arrival of this technology.

Why is the UK lagging behind in its approach to driverless car adoption? How can we do more to ensure we’re fully prepared for the motoring technology of the future? Leave a comment to share your views. 

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