Self-driving cars on Ontario roads this January? Ari Singer of Singer Kwinter speaks with CityNews Toronto.

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Self-driving cars on Ontario roads this January? Ari Singer of Singer Kwinter speaks with CityNews Toronto.

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Questions and answers from Ari Singer’s interview with CityNews Toronto on October 13, 2015:

Q: Who is liable in case of an accident or crash (regarding an autonomous vehicle)

A: Under present legislation (Highway Traffic Act), the owner of a vehicle is always responsible for an accident, unless a car is driven without their consent. In addition, manufacturers can also be responsible if the crash is caused by defective equipment (i.e. breaks fail). With self-driving cars, it’s likely that manufacturer liability will be a factor in these cases much more often.

Q: How much responsibility does the “human operator” bear? During the testing phase, all cars will have a human operator who can take over in case of emergency.

A: This will be a key consideration moving forward. At the current time, vehicles without an operator are not legal without a human operator. The human operator maintains the controls of the vehicle. If they are negligent, they will also be responsible. While it is still too early to tell, I would be surprised if any autonomous vehicles are presently insured under a standard automobile insurance policy. I would imagine they would have a specific commercial policy addressing experimentation.

Q: When self-driving cars are available widely to the public, what effect might this have on insurance?

A: The key issue in this case is with the amount of vehicles. One of the biggest factors addressing self-driving cars is their relationship to other, non-self driving cars. If, for instance, it becomes mandatory for all cars to have a transponder that “speaks” to self-driving cars, this will have a much larger impact than if the self-driving cars are each detecting other vehicles based on radar, etc.  Insurance at its simplest is about spreading risk over a group of people. An administrative and profit fee is then added.  Premiums are a reflection of these factors.  There is no question that the vast majority of motor vehicle accidents occur due to human error. If you remove the human element, accidents should decrease significantly. If and when that happens, automobile premiums should decrease significantly.

Q: What are the legalities of a self-driving car collision and a human operated car, vs. two self-driving cars?

A: Surprisingly, it doesn’t actually matter who is involved in the accident. What is important is who is “negligent” and responsible for the crash. The President of Volvo recently proclaimed that they will be liable for any damages involving an autonomous vehicle. But if you carefully read the statement, you realize that only applies if it is found the autonomous vehicle is responsible for the accident. In other words, unless the autonomous vehicle malfunctions or is otherwise responsible, Volvo will not simply pay any damages. “Fault” is still a significant factor.

One of the major issues in the future will be whether we move to a no-fault system entirely when an automobile is involved (self-driving or otherwise). At the present time, we have a partial no-fault system. Insurance companies are the payors with funds coming from premiums etc. A possible funding solution would be to have all self-driving vehicle stakeholders fund the no-fault system. Perhaps a tariff on the sale of each vehicle. This would fund the system and compensate people regardless of how an accident occurs. This would be a dramatic change from our current system but could address the problem of trying to find “negligence” in a machine.

On a final note, there seems to be a given assumption that driverless cars are coming in the near future. They will definitely be more popular, but they are already here. Radar guided cruise control, lane-detection technology, and self-parking vehicles are all commercially available. Insurance laws in Canada, and Ontario in particular, are significantly behind the times. Just like UberX, the government will be fixing laws after the fact instead of anticipating the change.” – Ari Singer