Self-driving cars: the law is changing

Whether autonomous, driverless or semi-autonomous, connected cars were at the heart of the Paris Motor Show. Technology is advancing in leaps and bounds and by 2025 one in three vehicles on the roads will be self-driving. Legislation will have adapt to this ongoing revolution.


A first step was taken in Europe on 23 March 2016 with the revision of the Vienna Convention which up till now has stipulated that the driver should always be in control of the vehicle. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe has officially authorised vehicles with delegated driving systems to be driven on the roads of member countries, provided there is always a driver in the vehicle and that the driving systems can be controlled or even disabled.


The second step will now be to determine who is liable in the event of an accident. The driverless car is held to be a safer means of driving. However, the first accidents have taken place recently with bodily injuries (death of a driver in Florida in 2016) and property damage.



Driver, embedded software, manufacturer: who is to blame for an accident?


In the case of semi-autonomous vehicles, the driver remains liable. Nevertheless, the question is left on the table for vehicles that self-park without driver involvement, for autonomous vehicles where the system does the driving and the driver just supervises, or for totally autonomous vehicles.


To date, the tendency has been to hold the manufacturer liable so that the victim can be compensated quasi-automatically. It is up to the liable party to prove the causes of the accident: faulty sensor, a mechanical problem or a bug in the algorithm, and to exercise recourse. Some manufacturers such as Volvo or Mercedes have already stated that they would be willing to take legal responsibility in the event of an accident caused by one of their autonomous cars.


– Others maintain that, as the origin of the accident is in most cases the algorithm, it is the creator of the autonomy software who should be held liable. In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Authority has just indicated to Google that its software would be held responsible in the event of an accident involving an autonomous vehicle.



In the UK, the government has ruled that motor insurance should be extended to include products liability. In the event of an accident, victims would be systematically compensated by the driver’s insurer, with possible recourse against the manufacturer by the insurer.


In order to help determine liability, black boxes identical to those in aircraft, would be fitted to vehicles. All such data would belong to the manufacturer in the event of an accident. It remains to be determined to what extent this data may be used and communicated, for example to insurers, whilst respecting individual freedoms, in particular.


At a time when France has just issued an order (no. 2016- 1057 of 3 August 2016) authorising the circulation for experimental purposes of a vehicle with partially or totally delegated driving on the public roads (subject to authorisation by the Minister for transport), this question of liability in the event of an accident will become central.


The issue of accountability for criminal offences will also arise. Will we need to continue to consider the driver criminally liable for offences committed by a vehicle over which he/she does not have any control?