According to research by the University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Centre, the market for autonomous vehicle technology will grow to almost €40 billion in 2025 and self-driving cars may account for a quarter of auto sales by 2035.
Whilst this may seem ambitious, the fact is we already exist in a time of semi-autonomous cars when we consider that many vehicles already rely on assisted driving technology such as ABS, cruise control or parking sensors. It is, therefore, not too futuristic or far-fetched to consider the role of driverless and semi-automated vehicles in the Irish context.
The benefits of driverless cars
Safety: Human error is a factor in over 94% of collisions in the United States, according to research conducted by the US Department of Transportation. In 2014 alone, the Road Safety Authority reported 196 fatalities occurred on our roads. The Injuries Board made awards of €243.46 million in 2013, of which 75% related to motor accidents. Automated vehicles have the potential to substantially reduce collisions, resulting injuries and the claims cost to both the exchequer and the insurance industry. Google reports that in the last six years and over 1.8 million miles, its vehicles have not caused any accidents while in self driving mode, although it has reported minimal accidents due to human error.
- Emissions: A recent EPA publication stated that there is a significant risk that Ireland will not meet its 2020 EU targets, even under the most ambitious emission reduction scenario. Transport emissions are also projected to show strong growth until 2020, with a 12-22% increase at current levels. Automated vehicles have the capacity to reduce emissions due to vehicles being ‘connected’; technology that allows them optimise use of routes, even traffic signals, which minimises fuel consumption.
- Congestion: Automated vehicles can also provide better use of road space through the use of the connected technology thereby reducing congestion.
- Social cohesion: Automated vehicles offer enhanced social cohesion. The vehicle can provide a driving ability to passengers who would not normally be in a position to drive, for example the elderly or visually impaired driver who may no longer be able to drive a conventional or adapted car. Automated technology has the capacity to enhance the quality of their lives. The technology can also result in an enhanced commuter experience where one can work, read or relax whilst ‘driving’.
- Increased accident data analytics: The vehicle technology, whilst raising complex data protection issues, is fitted with ‘black box’ type records, allowing for a more complete and objective analysis of road traffic accidents. This saves investigation time into road traffic accidents and the attendant cost for all interested parties. Inevitably, this would also increase discovery requests for each party’s vehicle’s data in any ensuing litigation.
Ireland as a location for testing of automated vehicles
Ireland is renowned for its silicon docks so why not its silicon roads? Testing of these vehicles could provide lucrative exchequer revenues. Mcity, a 13 hectare mini metropolis, was constructed in Michigan for the purpose of testing automated vehicles. The $6.5m facility has numerous building facades, junctions, roundabouts, bridges, etc. for the purposes of testing autonomous vehicles.
Aside from the construction and employment benefits of manufacturing such a facility, Ireland possesses the availability of suitable sites within a short distance of silicon docks, where the technology is being developed by, amongst others, Google. It is understood GM, Ford and Toyota are currently paying $1m over three years to gain priority access to Mcity and one wonders whether such facilities in Ireland could afford these benefits.
The interpretation section, Section 3 (1), of the Road Traffic Act 1961, defines ‘driving’ as ‘includes managing and controlling’. Whilst controlling is not defined in the legislation it would seem that, at least for semi-autonomous vehicles, there is no requirement for amending legislation as the driver will still be controlling the vehicle. Obviously the issue of fully autonomous vehicles, where the vehicle technology itself is in control, would require amending legislation to deal with the ability to sanction a driver whose vehicle is in automated mode and a consultation on driving licence regulations would also be required.
The United Kingdom recently published a detailed review of its regulations for automated vehicle technologies and concluded that driverless vehicles can be legally tested on public roads in the UK. This review of existing legislation found that its current legal and regulatory framework is not a barrier to the testing of automated vehicles on public roads.
The Vienna Convention on Road Traffic provides, at Article 8 (1), that ‘every moving vehicle or combination of vehicles shall have a driver’ and that ‘every driver shall, at all times, be able to control his vehicle’, per Article 8 (5). Whilst this has been interpreted internationally as a barrier to the introduction of automated vehicles, the UK has signed but not ratified the Convention and it is not considered an obstacle for the UK. Ireland is not a signatory to the Convention, so this would not appear to be a difficulty.
Several other EU and international countries have carried out individual assessments.
- Germany concluded in a report from 2012 that existing levels of automation are compatible with German regulatory law although fully automated vehicles would not comply with German law. Each federal state in Germany can grant exemptions from the technical requirements of the German Road Traffic Licensing Regulations and this can allow vehicles to operate autonomously on public roads, provided there is a driver in the driver’s seat who has full legal responsibility for the safe operation of the vehicle.
- Sweden has already commenced testing of highly automated vehicles on public roads and it is expected one hundred highly automated cars will be available for use for the public in 2017. The Swedish Transport Agency concluded that drivers licence rules and liability rules may need amending to permit the testing of vehicles using such systems.
- The United States has been the first country to introduce legislation to permit the testing of automatic vehicles but only four states have done so. There is significant variation at a state level and no state has fully determined how existing traffic laws should apply to automated vehicles although the US Department of Transport has released a policy on automated vehicle development.
There does not appear to be much debate on this issue in Ireland. For a small country with a single regulatory framework and a cluster of the world’s largest technology companies on its doorstep, it has a lot to offer concerning the testing of autonomous vehicles. Irish legislation would apply countrywide, providing an advantage over the UK where separate legislation is required in Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. It would further give an advantage over the US and Germany where different state and federal laws apply.
Where would the liability rest if an automated vehicle is involved in a collision? Firstly the definition of an automated vehicle would appear to fall within that of a mechanically-propelled vehicle. As such, the normal civil, criminal and tort law provisions apply.
There are numerous parties who may also bear some liability; the vehicle driver, the vehicle owner, the vehicle operator, the vehicle manufacturer, the vehicle supplier or importer and a service provider or indeed a data provider. Whilst it is anticipated most automated vehicles will be fitted with a form of data recorder which should indicate some liability, the assessment of liability could become quite complex.
Whilst maintaining the existing provisions for mandatory vehicle insurance, one possible solution is mandatory products liability insurance cover. This may provide comfort to allow for the testing of automated vehicles but also when determining liability for compensation.
Product liability law provides a framework for claimants to seek a remedy when a defective product causes harm or injury. Product liability insurance cover will generally provide for strict liability scenarios, as set out in the Liability for Defective Products Act 1991. There are, however, some defences to product liability cases. One such defence is the ‘state of the art’ defence, which may become particularly relevant due to the rapid evolution of the technology and law in this area.
A recent judgement of the Court of Justice considered liability for damage caused by defective products under Directive 85/37/EEC in Boston Scientific Medizintechnik GmbH v AOK Sachsen-Anhalt-Die Gesundheitskasse (C-503/13), Betriebskrankenkasse RWE (C-504/13). Whilst dealing with a medical device, the case concluded that the Directive must be interpreted as meaning that, where similar products belonging to the same group or forming part of the same production series, such as pacemakers, have a potential defect, the product may be classified as defective without any need to establish that the product has such a defect. Whilst one can not necessarily equate a vehicle to a medical device, the case law will no doubt expand in this area and should be watched for further developments.
Ireland is uniquely positioned to place itself at the forefront of autonomous vehicle testing. It offers a location where all the major providers, innovators and developers of the technology are based in a relatively small area. The technology has a lot to offer the State, from safety to employment benefits, reduced emissions and exchequer revenue.
As a country, we need to explore the role of automated vehicles. The last word is probably best left to the first trailblazer of automated vehicles; namely Michael Knight-
Michael Knight: ‘Kitt, there’s no one inside here.’
Kitt: ‘Michael, that’s impossible. A car doesn’t drive by itself.’
Michael Knight: ‘Doesn’t it?’
Exclusive feature by:
Ben Mannering FCII
State Claims Agency
Ben Mannering is a solicitor/claims manager with the State Claims Agency, which manage, amongst other, bullying and harassment personal injury claims against the State.
The views in this article are personal and do not reflect the views of the National Treasury Management Agency.
The views expressed within this Thinkpiece are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as those of The Insurance Institute or its members. This article contains a general summary of developments and is not a complete or definitive statement of the law. Specific legal advice should be obtained where appropriate. The information in this article is correct at the time of publication.
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