Car insurers recoil in horror from paying auto autos' speeding fines

UK driverless revolution means you'll stump up if your robot chauffeur gets it wrong

Red Dwarf's Kryten has told Parliament that electric cars of the future could be charged from LED lampposts – while insurers have flinched at the idea that they might have to pay speeding fines on behalf of naughty self-driving vehicles.

British insurance companies don't mind paying out for driverless car traffic accidents, as the UK's proposed Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill will compel them to do, but they strongly draw the line at coughing up for traffic tickets incurred by autonomous vehicles.

The bill will pave the way for autonomous cars to be sold to the public in Britain by sweeping away potentially messy legal liability problems if a crash happens – essentially by lumping all liability onto insurers unless the car's software has been modded.

An indirect result of this approach is that autonomous vehicles themselves will be insured, rather than the human driver. In turn, this opens up some rather thorny questions about road incidents other than crashes.

Sitting in the Parliamentary committee scrutinising the bill earlier today in Parliament, Conservative MP Sir Oliver Letwin asked what would happen if a self-driving car was "slow in responding to a change in signage", using the example of a smart motorway with editable speed limits. In his hypothetical scenario, the car was operating in fully autonomous mode.

"Should the insurers pay the speeding fine?" asked Letwin.

"No," replied David Williams of the Automated Driving Insurers Group, who was giving evidence to the committee.

"Surely the passenger is not then liable," Letwin persisted, referring to the human in the self-driving car. Earlier the point had been made that calling a human in a fully autonomous vehicle "the driver" was a bit misleading.

"The bill does not compel insurers to pay these fines," said Williams. His co-witness, Ben Howarth of the Association of British Insurers, chipped in: "We wouldn't support it if it did."

MPs also asked about what counts as a "safety-critical" update. The proposed definition of such updates (which defines them as updates that "an insured person knew, or ought reasonably to have known, were safety-critical") were felt by some MPs to be too broad.

Williams was forthright on this, saying: "Our view was that when you're talking about a ton of metal that's travelling at high speed on the roads, you should potentially lose that right to take risks with other people's lives. Our input would be that we think the updates should be implemented right away."

What if you were "rushing out of the house?" asked Conservative MP Iain Stewart. Should that count in your favour? Nope, said Williams: "If there's a fatal flaw in the software likely to make it veer off the road, my view is that the vehicle should be immobile" until the patch is installed.

The man in the rubber head speaks

Also giving evidence to the committee today was Robert Llewellyn, the actor who played endearingly awkward android Kryten on cult British sci-fi comedy show Red Dwarf. Since his days wearing a variety of angular rubber heads, Llewellyn has become a telly presenter, most recently with his YouTube series Fully Charged, in which he racks up thousands of miles on the road while enthusiastically exhorting fellow motorists to take up electric cars. As he told MPs: "I work on encouragement and enthusiasm."

When asked by Labour MP Karl Turner about the plans in the bill to force petrol station operators to install electric car charging points, Llewellyn was thoughtful, praising what he saw as a "good idea" for "making sense" but half-jokingly added: "All I would beg them to do is put in nice chairs and Wi-Fi and good coffee because you tend to be in longer when charging."

He was more cautious when Alan Brown, an SNP MP, asked him about ways the government could "incentivise" people to dump petrol and diesel cars ahead of the government's planned 2040 ban on sales of those vehicles.

"Encourage them, yes, but to pressure them... as a result of the misinformation that we all suffered from, I had a diesel, a lot of people did. That's a really difficult area," said Llewellyn, referring to outdated government advice that diesels were less polluting than petrol cars – a policy rapidly U-turned upon when it was realised the precise opposite is true.

The Autonomous and Electric Vehicles Bill is rapidly proceeding through Parliament, with timetabled evidence sessions before the Commons concluding in mid-November. The bill and its newly tabled amendments can be read on the Parliamentary website. ®


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