Driverless Cars and a Fatality-Free Future; is it possible and what will it mean legally?

Driverless cars are set to hit our shores in November 2015 with Volvo conducting trials of a number of their vehicles on a South Australian freeway. Their trial vehicles will perform manoeuvres such as overtaking, changing lanes, emergency breaking and the use of on and off ramps.

There has been much hype in recent times surrounding driverless cars, as they are said to be safer and more precise. It takes humans a second or more to react to a situation where as computers can react instantly. Less scope for human error means less accidents and better safety.

  • Human error is thought to account for 90 percent of crashes
  • Alcohol, drugs and tiredness are responsible for 40 percent of fatal crashes.

Driverless cars therefore could cut the road deaths by 40 percent, saving hundreds of lives each year. The total number of fatal crashes in Queensland so far this year stands at 169. Could many of these lives have been saved by driverless cars?

So, if driverless cars are safer and will save countless lives shouldn’t conventional cars be made a thing of the past? What difficulties will driverless cars have to overcome before they are available for purchase? Some hurdles may include:

  • Will consumers trust the technology?
  • Are driverless cars legally allowed to drive on our roads?
  • Who is liable for an accident?
Will consumers trust the technology?

A driverless car is controlled wholly by its computer. Its software is designed to operate the car without human input and to deal with traffic conditions as well as unforeseen circumstances. A survey conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute of 1,533 people, including 505 Australians found:

  • Only 12 percent of the people surveyed were completely comfortable with the concept of a driverless car; and
  • 16 percent of the Australians surveyed expressed “strong concern” about riding in a driverless car.

Perhaps then the successful implementation of driverless cars will depend upon whether people are comfortable placing their safety and trust in the hands of modern technology.

Are driverless cars legally allowed to drive on our roads?

The Australian Road Research Board has predicted that the driverless technology will begin to enter the Australian market in the next three to five years. However while such technology will be available will it be legal?

Currently under Australian law certain automated functions are legal BUT a driver is still required to hold the steering wheel. These automated functions include self-parking features, cruise control, and emergency brake assist. So before driverless cars can take to Australian roads the State and Territory Governments will need to make changes to their legislation to make legal fully autonomous cars.

The South Australian State Government has recently moved to reform two pieces of its road legislation saying it would pass laws to allow driverless cars on the road within a decade.

Who is liable should an accident occur?

In Queensland an injured person is able to make a claim for compensation under the Motor Accident Insurance Act 1994 if the injury is a result of:

  • The driving of the motor vehicle; or
  • A collision, or action taken to avoid a collision, with the motor vehicle; or
  • The motor vehicle running out of control;
  • A defect in the motor vehicle causing loss of control of the vehicle while it is being driven; AND
  • Is caused wholly or partly by a wrongful act or omission in respect of the motor vehicle by a person, other than the injured person.

So if a driverless car crashes who is liable? Perhaps liability will rest with the manufacturer of the vehicle, as they are responsible for programming the software that controls the operation and movement of the car – effectively they are the driver.

While an action could be brought against a manufacturer for accident involving a traditional car of today (i.e. a safety defect with the car) manufacturers are far more likely to escape liability as they have no control over how the car is operated or driven. Given the way driverless cars are programmed it could therefore be presumed that the manufacturer does have an element of control over the operation of the vehicle therefore exposing itself to a greater degree of liability should an accident occur.

Safer travel is what every society strives to achieve and driverless cars are bringing this concept ever closer. While the driverless car technology may be available to consumers in the next three to five years the implementation of such into society seems much further away.

At present we are not ready for this type of vehicle to hit our streets. Legislative changes will need to be made to allow such vehicles to drive on our roads and to also set the standards that these vehicles must reach. Issues surrounding who is liable for an accident must also be addressed so that claims for compensation can be properly dealt with.


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