Feds: Liability an Issue for Future of the Driverless Car

Google self-driving carFor Congresswoman Eleanor Norton, the title of the subcommittee hearing she attended—“How Autonomous Vehicles Will Shape the Future of Surface Transportation”—belied the state of modern-day traffic safety.

The hearing, she said, is “not futuristic.”

“Mass deployment of technology is already ushering in dramatic gains in safety by significantly reducing vehicle crashes and saving lives,” she told the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

Technology Already Forcing Down Crash Figures

Norton was among the lawmakers who gathered with other officials in Washington, D.C., for the Tuesday hearing, where they discussed the driverless car, what it entails and what role public policy plays in getting the burgeoning technology into the garages of everyday Americans.

Norton was strong in her support of autonomous vehicle technology and its potential to make roadways safer for America’s motorists.

Other lawmakers have already hitched their own early rides in support of driverless cars. In September, Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, posted a Youtube video of a 30-minute drive—sans the driver—through Pittsburgh in a 2011 Cadillac SRX.

At the hearing, Norton joked to Shuster that she hoped she could soon hitch her own ride in a driverless car.

And why not try it? Tom Petri, chairman for the Highways and Transit subcommittee, offered a laundry list of benefits offered by “the most advanced level of autonomous vehicle” that is in development.

“These vehicles do not suffer from intoxicated or fatigued driving and are able to react to dangerous driving situation faster than a human driver,” said Petri, who added that 90 percent of all crashes are linked to driver error, which would be minimized by such technology.

Emergent autonomous car technologies are already doing exactly that. A claims study released this year from the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) showed that forward collision-avoidance technology, which utilizes sensory and braking systems to stop a car before it crashes, helps lower claims rates.

The benefits of such technology are so evident that federal authorities recommended last year that collision-avoidance technology be standardized.

The public is also open to the idea of letting a car take more control of its own safety.  Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology allows a car to communicate with nearby cars, automatically checking a driver’s blind spots and nearby driving lanes. A federal survey of drivers showed heavy public support for V2V technology.

At the Tuesday hearing, David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) called V2V a “critical evolution of crash-avoidance technology” that is already setting the stage for more autonomous features in everyday vehicles.

But the road to that stage isn’t without its obstacles, many of which were highlighted by the hearing’s attendees.

“The technology for driverless cars, of course, must cope with the risks and the dangers and the congestion that are far more complicated on the road than in the air or on rail,” Norton said.

‘A Major Impact on Auto Insurance’

If one takeaway from the hearing was certain, it was that auto insurance plays a major role in the development of autonomous vehicles.

Kirk Steudle, the director of the Michigan Department of Transportation who spoke at the hearing on behalf of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said that lawmakers would have to address “liability for potential accidents” and “insurance regulations on autonomous vehicles” before they come to full fruition.

Though no insurance-related laws currently exist for the driverless car, Robert Hartwig, president for the Insurance Information Institute, said that regulation will have to be addressed.

“The cost of auto insurance is built around two things: the frequency of auto accidents, and their expense,” he said. “If self-driving cars become more of a reality on our roads, it is going to have a major impact on auto insurance.”

A 2012 study from research firm Celent previewed that impact, billing it as a major “end to auto insurance” as it currently exists.

At the hearing, Petri told fellow lawmakers that a complex question hangs over them and would need an answer before they legislate policies governing the driverless car:

“Who is at fault in a crash between a vehicle operated by a human and one operated by a computer system?”

Predictions Differ on Introduction of Driverless Cars

Though lawmakers put the future of the autonomous car in view, predictions differ on when consumers will see driverless cars on the road.

The “fleet turnover rate” of vehicles is about 20 years, according to Steudle, who said at the subcommittee hearing that the timeline means that if “you introduce it today, it will take 20 years for the full fleet to be completely converted.”

Authors for online publication TechCrunch dated a spoof article about driverless cars for 2023.

At a conference for state insurance organizations last month, attendees said that driverless cars could be on roads as soon as 2017.

A prediction from Petri laid out a broader timeline of 10 to 20 years. The chairman said that appropriate public policy is the fast-track for the driverless car to get onto America’s roadways.

“States have just started to address some of these challenges through laws allowing autonomous vehicles to operate on public roads and licensing procedures,” he said.

California and Nevada passed pieces of legislation in recent years that regulate autonomous driving for testing purposes. California’s bill, signed into law last year, requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to “adopt the new regulations as soon as practicable but no later than January 1, 2015,” according to the office of Gov. Jerry Brown.

Photo courtesy of Zack Sheppard

About Charles Nguyen
Charles Nguyen is an enterprising journalist who reported for Patch.com and the Desert Dispatch and was the editor in chief of the Guardian (the twice-weekly newspaper at the University of California, San Diego) before coming to Online Auto Insurance News.

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