AEV Bill "Pointy-headed technocrats" behind autonomous vehicles tech are worried that a proposed new law won't protect the public from huge financial claims if a mass hack of a driverless car fleet occurs.
Expert submissions to the committee of MPs considering the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill are full of concerns on a range of issues: mainly who pays in the event of a crash, but also privacy and driver training concerns.
Legal academics from Exeter University warned that a mass hack scenario, where a group of the same cars is hacked by malicious actors and used to cause mayhem, may not be covered by insurers. Making certain that insurance companies pay out for driverless car accidents, instead of individual drivers and owners, is the whole point of the AEV Bill.
The same professors also pointed out that the current wording of the bill “refers to a limit of liability for property damage by reference to ‘any one accident’, but it is not clear whether the damage suffered by each item of property involved is an ‘accident’ or whether the word is intended to have an aggregating function. Such caselaw as there is on the word ‘accident’ suggests the former, which is unlikely to be what was intended.”
Meanwhile, Neil Greig, director of policy and research at the Institute of Advanced Motorists, told the committee that car makers ought to be responsible for teaching drivers how to handle their auto autos.
“We believe that car manufacturers should have a responsibility to fully train drivers in the safe operation of Level 3 cars,” said Greig. “This is particularly important in a world where software upgrades can be applied remotely – the car that you parked in the evening may have a whole range of new functions added overnight.”
Level 3 refers to the American Society of Automotive Engineers’ table of vehicle autonomy levels, as explained here.
Spying on insurance-less government departments
In addition, the British government itself may be at increased risk of international espionage from driverless vehicles, as the British Vehicle Leasing and Rental Association warned. The association's Patrick Cusworth said it had been told that most driverless vehicle software updates would take place "over the air" and explained that "several BVRLA members have indicated they will not accept [this] as this means that sensitive customer, driver and/or vehicle data could be accessed by the manufacturer, negating both privacy and customer confidentiality."
The Ministry of Defence is a big customer for leased vehicles that it uses in its so-called "white fleet" of minibuses, coaches and lorries. These are used to inconspicuously drive personnel and military equipment around the country.
The MoD’s policy of self insurance – the department has no insurance, instead paying damages straight out of the defence budget for accidents it causes – is also causing headaches for BVRLA members, who said that, under the AEV Bill's current wording, "liability for accidents [with driverless vehicles] … would fall upon the vehicle owner/provider – i.e. the BVRLA member – rather than either the driver or the vehicle manufacturer."
Though the government's Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles told the BVRLA this would not happen and liability could be shifted to the MoD through leasing contracts, the association is not convinced.
We don't want these electric sockets. Pay us to build more fuel pumps instead<
Most amusing of the expert submissions was the Association of Convenience Stores' suggestion that its 9,000 forecourt members should be given "incentives" to "invest in ULEV infrastructure".
ULEV stands for Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle. Definitions of what this means vary, but most seem to agree that it means cars which emit a much lower level of carbon dioxide gas than current cars. Most importantly, hybrid cars fall under the ULEV definition – in other words, vehicles such as your petrol-fuelled Toyota Prius.
Just to really hammer the point home about wanting a petrol and diesel-only future, the ACS added this:
ACS does not support Clause 10, which would mandate a minimum provision of EV charge-points and hydrogen refuelling. Currently only 2.6% of forecourts have EV charging points on their site, equivalent to 225 forecourts which host 465 electric charging points.
More thoughtfully, the association highlighted the cost of forced upgrades: "It costs in the region of £50,000 and £60,000 to install electric vehicle charge points and this is heavily dependent on the existing fuel site’s capacity and connection to the National Grid."
While Labour MP Clive Efford's cruel description of these and other experts who gave evidence to the committee as "pointy-headed technocrats" was a bit much, the points they raise are vitally important. If driverless cars are to work, the AEV Bill needs to nail down the areas of uncertainty now.
Leaving it to the courts would doubtless enrich a lot of lawyers – but it would significantly harm public confidence if a precedent was established that allowed insurance companies to weasel out of claims caused by inept robot drivers. ®