Cruise with me – but who is driving?


For years we have been hearing and living with the effects of increased automation, artificial intelligence and technological developments, which have changed the way we shop, interact, drive and live.

The latest big thing – driverless cars, were just a short-time away when the recent US tragedy occurred after a self-driving Uber hit and killed a women crossing a street in Arizona.  The vehicle was being driven in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel, although the cause of the collision is not yet clear.

The incident raises a number of complex issues around who had control of and was driving the vehicle at the time of the incident.  While the answer is likely to be tied up with the cause of the fault, it raises interesting questions for people involved in motor vehicle accidents where liability usually attaches to the at fault driver, owner or person in control of the motor vehicle.  Who is in control of an automated, driverless car?

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The importance of who was in ‘control ‘and driving a motor vehicle involved in an accident was highlighted in the recent case of Lee v Lee & Ors [2017] QSC 42.  In this case the Court accepted evidence that the 17 year old Plaintiff, who was paralysed in the incident, was the driver and person in control of the at fault vehicle and therefore not eligible for damages.  The Court also found the motor vehicle insurer would not have paid compensation to other family members injured in the incident if it had not relied on the dishonest representations by the Plaintiff and his parents about who was driving.  The Court ordered the money paid to family members had to be repaid. 

In the case of an autonomous or driverless vehicle, the difficulty in determining who was in control of the vehicle at the time of impact and the cause of the incident is likely to result in increased complexity for those injured in motor vehicle accidents.  How the law will develop to deal with these types of technological leaps remains unknown.

A panel of scientists and legal experts in Germany are in the process of developing the world’s first ethical rules regarding how autonomous vehicles are to be programmed.  It provides guidelines for the motor vehicle industry to consider in the development and use of automotive cars and may influence legislative updates in this progressive area.

The guidelines stress the importance of knowing, at all times, who is driving – a human or the computer.  It suggests scanning the licence of the person who would otherwise be in charge of the vehicle and to whom, control can be transferred, if and when required.  It also suggests the introduction of an aviation style black box in autonomous vehicles to continually record events including who is driving the vehicle at different times.

Of course, this does not address related concerns associated with software malfunction, vehicle performance and maintenance issues, the threat of hacking and navigating privacy laws around the collection of information, but it provides a solid start to addressing the magnitude of issues driving changes in the way we operate cars and interact on roads. 

Hughes & Lewis Legal specialise in motor vehicle accident claims.  If you, a friend or family member has been injured in a motor vehicle accident, contact us.  We provide comprehensive advice on your legal rights to access compensation and rehabilitative services.


About the author
Belinda Hughes is a Director of Hughes and Lewis Legal


Belinda Hughes