horwich farrelly

‘Intelligent’ cars: A technological advance, but will they complicate claims even further?

April, 1, 2019

At first sight, the European Commission’s recent proposals in regard to improved car safety are both logical (as technology is constantly improving) and sensible (because they are intended to reduce the number of car accidents). The principal proposal is a requirement for car manufacturers to install systems that will:

  • Detect mandatory speed limits
  • Cause the car to reduce its speed to that limit
  • Warn the driver if, to go faster, he overrides the system.

Given the part played by speed in many accident scenarios, particularly in urban environments, it seems a no-brainer that these requirements will reduce the number of incidents and claims overall. However, as with many good ideas, there are bound to be unintended consequences.

1.First, the vehicle will only be notified of a fixed speed limit. This may not necessarily be the safe maximum speed for that road, at that time. Weather, traffic, the presence of road works and other conditions could dictate a lower speed. Is there a risk that some drivers will take the ‘system’ generated speed, as a safe speed, dulling a driver’s common sense?

2.Secondly, and using road works as an example: What will a contractor’s responsibility be to ensure that a temporary, but mandatory, speed limit is linked into the detection system?

3.Thirdly, will systems like this create further conflict between insurers and their insureds?

Currently, if an insured driver is involved in an accident caused by excessive speed, then that would count as negligence and will invariably be covered. What happens however, if the same driver has the same accident having overridden or ignored a system warning? Will it be possible to write policies on the basis that such actions will allow the insurer to avoid cover and become Road Traffic Act insurer, refusing to pay for any damage to the vehicle and with a right to recover third party outlay from the driver? Why should a policy provide the same cover for those who have a momentary lapse in concentration just before an impact, and those who flagrantly disregarded any given warnings?

We suspect that the answer may be that, while a policy will cover both drivers, Mr Careful will have less of a shock when he comes to renew his policy than Mr Speeder, who will likely find himself having to shop round for affordable cover.

If the second example above seems extreme, surely there will be policy wording to exclude cover where there had been deliberate tampering with the technology by a driver who was so intent on speeding that he did not want his vehicle to respond every time it encountered a speed limit.

In either of these cases, interrogation of the ‘black box’ (unless also tampered with) will reveal the driver’s true driving history and what must count as a deliberate disregard for speed limits put in place primarily for reasons of safety.

4.Fourthly, there is an increased tension between the accessibility, at reasonable cost, of vehicles capable of acceleration and high speed, and the desire by the state to control how they are driven. Any suggestion that vehicle performance should be pegged back would likely be met with protests and, no doubt, arguments that, in some case,s the inability to accelerate out of danger could create its own risks.

5.Fifthly, as with other autonomous vehicle issues, who will be responsible if the technology is not properly maintained, or fails for some other reason, at the time of an accident?

It will doubtless be argued that the driver retains ultimate responsibility for maintaining a safe speed. But what if, on a long straight dual carriageway, the speed limit changed from 70mph to 40mph as the road swept around a bend with a junction to the nearside and the driver missed the sign and allowed the vehicle to maintain the same speed. Up to that point, the vehicle had responded to system messages and its speed had reduced. On this occasion a message was sent to the vehicle but it did not respond. Is the driver wholly to blame or should the ‘system’ operator bear all or part of the fault?

It is to be hoped that all of these issues will be fully considered before the proposed system goes live.

Currently the proposals under discussion only relate to cars. It seems to us that they would be even more valuable if extended to motorcycles.

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