Personal Injury, Serious Injury & Clinical Negligence

The automated age of motoring – coming to a road near you soon

Automated cars and the future of driving are popular topics in the media. Excitement among manufacturers and consumers is growing as increasing numbers of trials are carried out and technology to allow “driverless cars” becomes more reliable and cost effective.

As a consequence, governments and global organisations are beginning to look at the impact of driverless vehicles, the transition from fully human operated vehicles to automated driving and what legal hurdles need to be overcome to make this sci-fi fantasy a reality. But what will the consequences of automated vehicles be for road traffic accidents and associated personal injury claims?

A report published by the European Commission has found that 90% of Europe’s traffic accidents are caused by human error, with 40,000 people killed and 1.5 million injured every year in Europe. Taking a simplistic view, by removing the need for humans to drive vehicles, it will cut 90% of accidents, save the lives of 36,000 European’s each year and prevent serious injury to many more. Whilst any measure that prevents accidents and injuries is welcomed, we know that technology is not infallible; what happens if the technology fails?

The early years

The transition from human to computer led driving will not happen overnight. Even so, it is not too far away, with some predicting that over the next 10 to 20 years we will see driving functions becoming increasingly automated; a hybrid of human and automated control. There are concerns about the interaction between humans and automation and whether or not certain actions or safety critical tasks will slip through the net, when the human and computer each think that the other has taken responsibility for that part of the driving.

For example, even today there exists a form of cruise control whereby the vehicle will not only maintain a pre-set speed but will slow the vehicle down automatically so as to keep a safe distance from a hazard, stopping the vehicle before a collision occurs. With this type of functionality, capable of being turned on and off at the driver’s discretion, a scenario could easily arise where the driver believes the car is using adaptive cruise control when it is not, and fails to stop the vehicle before a collision ensues. Alternatively, that feature could be activated, but the technology fails, leaving the driver unaware of the immediate risk.

That type of scenario is likely to increase as cars make the transition from manual to automatic control systems and new features are capable of being enabled and disabled until they become mainstream. We could potentially see an increase in accidents as inexperienced road users adapt to new technology and ways of driving. Litigation following accidents is likely to be become more complex, with disputes as to whether driver error or technology failure was responsible causing a collision.

Data recording

New vehicles today are already more akin to mobile computers than the original mass produced Ford’s at the turn of the 1900’s. A huge amount of data is recorded every second and saved onto the car’s computer to help fuel efficiency, diagnostic information and to allow safety mechanisms such as belt pre-tensioners and Electronic Stability Control to operate. As computers begin to take over functions such as steering, braking and signalling, more and more data can be retained and used as evidence in road traffic accidents.

A report by the European Commission has suggested that “black boxes” be used in automated vehicles to record data relating to the functioning of the vehicle and its systems. This will in theory identify any errors that could lead to an incident or, in circumstances where the driver can take over functions for driving the car, what actions they have taken throughout the course of a journey. A good deal of time is currently spent gathering the evidence which will help determine the facts surrounding an accident (the speed of the vehicles, signalling, manoeuvres and other actions taken by each driver involved); this evidence will help determine liability, i.e. who was at fault.

In an age of automated driving, liability could be settled within minutes of assessing the “black box” data and establishing what went wrong. Dash-cams already go some way in helping Police and solicitors establish the cause of an accident, but they are not widely used and do not always capture the crucial action.

Skill levels

Like any advancement in automation, as computers takeover, the ability of humans to perform that task to a high level may well drop. Practice makes perfect, or so they say, and if drivers routinely rely on automisation in their day to day driving, will they be competent to take over in an emergency situation, should technology fail?

The debate is prevalent in the airline industry, with many pilots (and others) fearful that reliance on autopilot deprives pilots the opportunity to practice the skills learned at flying school, and despite regular checks in simulators, they might not be as capable of remedying a problem and avoiding disaster as they would if they flew the planes themselves during normal operation.

It is not yet known how new and existing drivers will be examined to ensure that they are safe to take command of an automated vehicle, and governments will need to ensure that drivers are capable and know how to intervene if things go wrong.

Change in law

It will come as no surprise that the European Commission feels that existing road safety laws are inadequate to function in an age of automation. Countries across the world will need to bring in new laws to govern the functionality of the technology within the cars, standardisation between manufacturers (so that vehicles can “talk” to each other) and new Highway Codes setting out responsibilities for automated vehicle users, pedestrians and other road users.

The development in automated driving is set to be one of the major changes in the motor and travel industries and will bring with it a host of practical and legal challenges.