Some insurance companies are predicting that in ten years, all cars on the road will be self-driving. What does a world full of autonomous vehicles look like? Will families even own their own cars ten years from now? Or will we have public cars droning around waiting for their next passenger?
This all may seem like a long shot, but Honda says it has plans to roll out a fully electric self-driving car in Europe next year (http://carsoverviews.com/2019-honda-urban-ev/). Not only will the car be able to take you to work, but it will also have the ability to carry passengers around town for a fee while you’re at the office. That means that your car can earn you money while you work. All that and still charge itself, pick you up and have you home by dinner.
I’m sure you’ve thought about all of the things that could go wrong in that scenario. We won’t think about all the things strangers might do and spill in your shiny electric vehicle, but I think it’s worth thinking about what this might mean from a legal standpoint.
First of all, the technology isn’t quite ready yet. In tests, these types of cars haven’t been able to handle situations as simple as a pedestrian standing on a street-corner waving the car by because he doesn’t plan on crossing. If it fails that test, what other situations have we overlooked?
Also, as we’ve learned from laptops and smartphones, it’s not the times when it is working well that we have problems, but the times when there are delays, glitches and sometimes even crashes. What happens when your self-driving car’s computer crashes (pun intended)?
But perhaps the biggest question we are going to have to decide as a society is, who owns the liability for a car that drives itself? If Honda takes the liability, what stipulations would they put on it? That it must be serviced at a Honda dealership for its entire lifetime? And what about when the driver wants to use the car manually (the Honda Urban EV has that option)? Is the manufacturer still liable?
If insurance companies agree to assume liability, an entire new product will need to be created with laws to regulate it. If that day comes, we can only assume that premiums will be determined by how autonomous your car is (the experts say that computers are better at driving than humans: https://www.businessinsider.com/why-driverless-cars-will-be-safer-than-human-drivers-2016-11). But will you need to tell your agent how often you will drive manually? Or even register every time you are about to drive, giving insurance a more a la carte feeling?
And what if we get all the laws and liability set in stone only to have hackers start taking over and crashing autonomous vehicles? Who would be liable then?
Honestly, we’re not sold on the idea that good ‘ol human-driven cars are on the way out. Technology is usually much slower to be adopted than it is ever predicted to be. And the day someone converts my ’70 Mustang to an autonomous car is the day I sell it.