There remains plenty of mystery about when you’ll be able to (safely and legally) doze off or read a book while riding in a self-driving car. But perhaps the bigger question is liability: if your self-driving car is in a crash, who is on the hook for damages? Can you even be held liable for damages your car inflicted while you were recording a Vine of yourself scarfing down an Egg White Delight McMuffin?
Yet it doesn’t seem to be a big question for Volvo, as it announces that it will accept full liability for whatever happens when one of its self-driving vehicles is operating in autonomous driving mode. That includes both accidental crashes and incidents in which the autonomous software is hacked by a third party.
You might be wondering why Volvo would do such a thing. The main reason is to grease the wheels of legislation surrounding autonomous vehicle liability. According to Volvo president and CEO Håkan Samuelsson, it’s about setting a legal framework that’s clear and consistent enough for automakers to test, develop, and sell autonomous vehicles.
“The absence of one set of rules means car makers cannot conduct credible tests to develop cars that meet all the different guidelines of all 50 US states,” Samuelsson will say at an autonomous vehicle seminar tomorrow in Washington D.C. “If we are to ensure a smooth transition to autonomous mobility then together we must create the necessary framework that will support this.”
Volvo perhaps hopes that if it can sidestep miles of legal red tape by accepting full liability, others might follow suit and pave a quicker path to self-driving cars. After all, the existing tort-liability system is flexible enough to cover autonomous cars, and accident victims are extremely likely to go after automakers with deep pockets for product liability suits rather than individuals with auto insurance policies with lower limits.
This is also a likely indication of Volvo’s supreme confidence in its technologies, as well as its desire to remain a global leader in auto safety. It continues to stand by its goal to have zero deaths or injuries in new Volvos by 2025. Already by 2017, it will have started its autonomous Drive Me program, in which 100 drivers in Gothenburg will ride in autonomous Volvo XC90s over a 31-mile stretch, without any requirements to pay attention.
Clearly Volvo is making strides in the right direction, but the gears of change tend to turn slowly with issues like these. Expect lots more debate to come.