If you watch television at all, you have probably seen one of the ads for cars with the self-parking feature. The insurance industry has been strangely quiet on the subject of automated features like parallel parking. It will be interesting to see if insurers, auto manufacturers and the courts draw a new line between personal and product liability.
For consumers, of course, the question's focus is how insurance companies will resolve auto insurance claims when the self-parking feature tears the bumper off another vehicle. The issues get more complex when the entire car is automatic. As we discussed in our last post, insurance industry professionals say the answer could be multi-tiered coverage, that is, one level for the times when the car is in control and another for those times the error-prone human takes over.
The bill slowly making its way through the Florida Legislature right now includes a definition of liability, but it doesn't quite address the same issues. The bill removes all liability from the manufacturer of a car that has been converted into an "autonomous" vehicle.
So, if your cousin Louie retrofits your Dodge truck into an automatic, self-driving vehicle, Dodge cannot be responsible for any harm caused by the truck. For a claim to stand against the manufacturer, the defect would have to have been present in the vehicle before or independent of the conversion.
Fortunately, lawmakers seem not to believe that only product liability issues are involved. The bill requires the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to research what other issues may present themselves in the "safe testing and operation" of autonomous motor vehicles. The DHSMV will have two years to complete the report for presentation to the Legislature.
The new law, however, will take effect on July 1, 2012. If Google steps up the pace, autonomous vehicles could be on the road before insurance companies have any idea how to protect their policyholders.
Florida House of Representatives, Final Bill Analysis: Bill #CS/HB 1207, accessed May 14, 2012
Business Insurance, "Google queries insurers on coverage for driverless cars," April 27, 2012