With the availability of driverless cars to consumers being predicted for the not-too-distant future, vehicle manufacturers, telecommunications companies and insurers have weighed in on the debate about the technology’s benefits and potential problems. A car is commonly understood to be ‘driverless’ if its steering, acceleration and/or braking can be operated without driver input.

Google began its Self-Driving Car Project in 2009 to build and test prototype vehicles. So far, Google’s testing fleet has self-driven over 1.5 million miles and can be seen in various parts of the United States. Mercedes-Benz has also introduced partial-automated driving features on some of its vehicles.

Various telcos have also shown an interest in the technology, because they stand to gain from its dependence on the processing of big data and an internet connection.

Driverless cars have many potential benefits, such as increased mobility and better road safety. However, businesses, governments and lawyers are grappling with difficult questions that this technology will bring. Issues to think about are

  • Will and to what extent will the manufacturer, passenger, owner, supplier or programmer who wrote the underlying code be liable if there’s an accident?
  • Who will own the data collected about the passenger or owner?
  • What security measures will be put in place to protect the passenger or owner’s data?

The Motor Vehicles (Trials of Automotive Technologies) Amendment Act 2016 that was passed by the South Australian Parliament on 31 March 2016 (to take effect on a later date, that is yet to be determined) is an example of legislation being enacted in an attempt to keep up-to-date with these types of technological developments. This legislation allows the Minister for Transport and Planning in South Australia to authorise trials of driverless cars, subject to certain conditions. One such condition is that the person undertaking the trial must have public liability insurance to indemnify the owner and any authorised driver of the car for death, bodily injury or property damage caused by use of the car. The Minister must publish details of the authorised trial on a website at least 1 month before the commencement of the trial.

The person conducting a trial of driverless cars stands to profit if they successfully roll out the technology, but interested parties may ultimately be required to assume the risk of accidents.

Undoubtedly, the debate surrounding these types of issues will keep evolving as the technology is rolled out.