Self-driving vehicles might be autonomous but insurance pay-outs probably won't be

Liability going into reverse

Something for the Weekend, Sir? I enjoy travel but I do not fly well – especially if the aeroplane’s wings are rusted, the tail has been attached with vinegar and brown paper, and the undercarriage is still sitting in the ditch it fell into at the end of the departure airport’s runway some 300 miles away.

As you might have guessed, I am a big fan of the TV documentary series Air Crash Investigation. I am an expert in everything that could possibly go wrong, from insects nesting in the pitot tubes to bit-part actors in cheap gorilla suits dancing on the wing.

Some in-flight medication is required to help me through the ordeal. Usually, I turn to a traditional herbal remedy derived from juniper berry oil and grain alcohol. To this, I add some carbonated water flavoured with a little quinine plus a slice of lemon.

Five of those and a bag of nuts usually does the trick.

On the occasions when work obliges me to hurtle through turbulent clouds at 550mph in a skinny metal tube piloted by a Roger Moore impersonator who’s had less sleep in the last 48 hours than a junior doctor on A&E, my apprehension becomes infectious. As the departure date grows closer, my wife picks up the grim mood.

Youtube Video

As a result, just before I set off for the airport, my wife will insist that I leave her a sheet of paper listing all my IDs and passwords for online banking, pension and life insurance, “just in case”, before wishing me a nice flight.

It’s like the opening scene of an episode of Columbo.

They tell me that flying is safer than other forms of travel but this hardly addresses the problem. I am not scared of travel, unless of course you mean travelling a vertical distance of 20,000 feet while surrounded by disintegrating aeroplane components. I am simply scared of heights and the idea of falling down them.

Travelling by train, and its reassuring proximity to the ground, suits me fine. Although trains are noisy and uncomfortable and jostle about a lot, you can stretch out, make use of a toilet whose door is wider than your hips, and get some work done. Nor are you told to switch off and store away your laptop every time you leave or enter a station.

Best of all, when you arrive, you’re usually within a walk or a short taxi jaunt of your final destination rather than stuck in a fucking field 30 miles in the middle of nowhere.

Indeed, the only challenge with inter-city train travel these days is ending up in an aisle seat, which means you have to plead with the surly stranger in the window seat to let you use the power socket located some 18 inches under the window – assuming that he or she is not already using it.

This leads to some tense moments as you lean across the stranger’s lap to plug in your laptop cable. The stranger at this point will always offer to plug it in for you and will always then be utterly incapable of doing it properly.

The clanking and scraping and wiggling of your precious plug (replacement cost £59) against the aluminium casing of the power socket makes you squirm in your seat as the stranger does his or her best to snap off the plastic earth pin in his or her clumsy attempts to insert the plug while being utterly unaware that he or she is a complete moron.

The stranger stops and looks at you pointedly, whereupon you realise you have been saying all this aloud.

A few seconds later, the plug is safely inserted and you are left in peace to get some work done during the remainder of the journey, punctuated only by the occasional harrumphing of your travelling companion as your laptop cable rubs against his or her knees.

Of course, trains don’t take you everywhere you want to go, and hanging around station platforms for connecting trains is boring, wasteful and, during the winter months, cold. So you can easily imagine how keenly I look forward to self-driving cars: door-to-door travel, comfy seat, warm interior, great music, everything within easy reach, all your gadgets on recharge, and not having to keep checking every 10 minutes whether someone has stolen your suitcases.

If the self-driving car manufacturers could add in a coffee machine and a means of taking a piss (how come no one has done this yet?) it would be perfect.

One objection to the democratic nirvana of self-driving cars is that it would take the pleasure out of driving. That’s nonsense: no one enjoys driving.

OK, people say they are keen motorists but what they actually mean is that they enjoy pointing a car along an empty road in the countryside surrounded by lots of scenery that they are not supposed to be looking at because the Highway Code and the rules of common decency expect them instead to be watching where the fuck they’re going.

That’s not driving. That’s just twiddling a steering wheel, roaring the engine on every climb and jamming the brakes on at every corner, causing your passengers to coat your leather trimmings with projectile vomit. A child of 18 months could do that – and produce their own projectile vomit too, come to think of it, which means they can even multitask better than most adult drivers.

Yet as soon as you put a motorist alongside other motorists, collectively known as “traffic”, they hate every second of it. But since traffic is where 99 per cent of all driving takes place, I humbly suggest that this is what driving really is: repeatedly nudging forward a few feet and stopping, walled in on all sides by your fellow fuming nose-pickers, and only occasionally breaking away and getting your car into third gear for a few seconds before having to slow down at the next traffic light, junction or roundabout.

I would very happily sacrifice the dubious pleasure of this driving experience by sitting in a car that did all that stuff for me while I did something else, such as read or sleep or watch a film. That said, I might still opt to take over the controls to drive down a motorway for five of your Earth hours than watch another Ben Affleck movie, but at least I’d have a choice of how to dispose of some of the limited material existence left to me while I remain on your puny planet.

Sure, there are safety and reliability issues that will continue to challenge the autonomous car engineers, and I’ve certainly made fun of them myself. One by one, these will be fixed, and it could be that self-driving cars will become an everyday reality much more quickly than anyone expects.

I can see self-driving cars on public roads long before Amazon gets the OK to deliver parcels by drone, for example. Indeed, this will happen long before Yodel ever gets around to finally delivering my Amazon parcel that went missing two years ago.

For the first time, however, I have begun worrying about what might happen in the wake of a self-driving accident – not in terms of the accident itself but the insurance liability. If someone drives into me and neither of us were “at the wheel”, as it were, who settles the bill for my panel-beating?

For that matter, will motoring insurance actually mean anything any more when it’s the car, not the occupant, that’s doing the driving?

The industry is way ahead of me on this, with Volvo’s president, Håkan Samuelsson, stating last week that his company would accept full liability for accidents caused by its cars while running in autonomous mode. Mercedes-Benz and Google have muttered similar pleasantries, one imagines between clenched teeth.

Yeah right.

Already I can see the caveats and “oh buts” peeking out of their jacket pockets. Volvo, for example, says it plans to release a fleet of a hundred XC90 SUVs onto the streets of Gothenburg by 2017… except you won’t be allowed to drive them in snowy conditions.

Good job it rarely snows in Sweden, eh?

I heard vaguely similar whispers of caution during a visit to Audi recently with regard to its active lane assist system, which relies on a combination of GPS tracking and video feeds in the car. What if it’s raining hard or snowing so it can’t see the lane markings, or, as in the UK, the authorities simply haven’t bothered to retouch the flaking paint on its motorways for decades?

Worse, the most likely problem is that self-driving cars will be treated by manufacturers, insurance companies and lawyers like as something that it really is: a computer on wheels. And what’s the first thing you see when you fire up a new gadget for the first time? That’s right, you have to click “Agree” next to a mile-high document of small print containing Terms & Conditions that absolve the manufacturer of all liability while enshrining all potential blame for everything from consequential damages to the assassination of JFK in the owner. That’s you.

I don’t mean to harangue insurance companies for filling their policies with intricate reservations and get-out clauses: they need to protect themselves, and their loyal customers, from the idiotic and insane. Nor do I blame lawyers for charging lots of money for arguing over liability cases – or did you expect everyone else in the world other than yourself to work for free?

Despite Håkan Samuelsson’s breezy assurances, I think we’re as far away from assigning liability for self-driving accidents as ever. Even if you determine Volvo to be trustworthy, a cursory glance at current affairs in the motor industry suggests that car manufacturers in general do not have an honourable track record of telling the truth or doing the right thing. It’ll almost certainly turn out to be an insurance nightmare and a legal quagmire.

Yup, I can see more such snowy caveats are on their way for autonomous vehicles, gathering like crows on the frosty walls of Winterfell.

Shitstorm is coming. ®

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He has strong opinions on what constitutes a good car, including comfort, intuitive controls, smooth action, and a bit of thrust in sport mode. But above all, it must have a decent audio system. The car is the only place left where grown-ups can play music out loud and sing along to it as badly as they like – with the exception of X Factor, of course.

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