Autonomous vehicles hit the headlines again recently when Hakan Samuelsson, CEO of Volvo, announced that the company would accept full responsibility for the performance of its self-driving cars. Appearing to set a challenge to the rest of the industry, Mr Samuelsson told an audience at the Swedish embassy in Washington, DC: ‘When you drive manually, the driver is responsible. When it's automatic, we as the manufacturer are liable. If you're not ready to make such a statement, you're not ready to develop autonomous solutions.’

The issue of who is liable should a self-driving car crash has been a major topic of debate. The performance of autonomous vehicles is governed by an array of sensors, cameras, digital maps and software – which may not have been developed by the car-maker itself. 

At face value, therefore, Mr Samuelsson’s statement seems like a bold move. But in most jurisdictions the manufacturer of a faulty product is liable for harm caused by that product whether or not it wants to assume responsibility. It is also likely that Volvo will limit its announcement to avoid liability for crashes caused by a third party. If it does not, the company would risk bankruptcy.

How challenging an issue this is for OEMs was highlighted this week at the launch of Tesla’s new ‘Autopilot’ software. The technology can steer between road markings, change lanes and even parallel-park. In his presentation of the new system, Tesla founder Elon Musk stated: ‘I’m quite confident within three years [that] the car will be able to take you from point to point … without you touching anything,’ he said. ‘You could be asleep the whole time and do so completely safely … [but for now] we are advising drivers to keep their hands on the wheel. It’s very important that people exercise caution because the software is very new. It should not hit pedestrians, hopefully… [but] I wouldn’t want to say today, “don’t worry about it”.’

Driver error causes more than 30,000 deaths a year in the US alone and autonomous vehicles have the potential to remove human fallibility from the equation. The technology is not there yet but it is positive for the industry that Volvo has chosen to address the liability issue head-on.