22nd Nov 2016

When drones and driverless cars go wrong

As technology advances, so many of the questions and issues facing us change. In the good old days, it was clear who was to blame if a car went out of control and hit you, or a plane failed and crashed. In the first, the driver in all likelihood. In the second, the airline, probably.

On the other hand, if your software went wrong and you lost your data, you might blame the software, or the computer – although when you go to check the small print, you find that the warranty was for 30 days, or for £50.

Changing times lead to changing challenges. 

When the drone falls out of the sky onto you, your family or your property, who’s to blame? You may think it’s the operator, because you might think the drone operates like a model aeroplane, controlled by a man or boy (usually male, other genders are available) with a joystick. That’s not necessarily the case though – they might be operating autonomously against an assigned task and all the law requires at present is that they are within eyesight of an operator. 

all the law requires is that a drone is within eyesight of the operator

When a driverless car goes wrong, how does the law which makes it illegal to drive without insurance work?  Already there is concern and controversy about this –  “driverless” car pioneers are making clear that actually drivers need to maintain control. A new technology now being launched by Mercedes need the driver to touch the steering wheel every 30 seconds.  It’s an action without a function, other than keeping the driver engaged with the journey. Apparently it takes 6 seconds for a person to go from being unengaged to being engaged, and 6 seconds is a long time in an emergency situation.

it takes 6 seconds for a person to go from being unengaged to being engaged - a long time in an emergency situation

In the Queen’s Speech delivered in May 2016 - before becoming consumed by Brexit considerations - the UK Government committed to make the UK a world leader in these technologies, and that includes changing laws which restrict their development. Much has changed since then, but this remains the agenda.  Development will be stifled – whether in the UK or elsewhere – if the developers or manufacturers become liable for things which traditional car makers have never been liable. 

So on the one hand we can expect to see wrangles over legal liability, and screaming headlines over Frankenstein cars running amok? If one person is killed by a driverless car, there will be outrage – despite the number killed or injured by careless, sleepy or bad drivers, and notwithstanding driverless cars being created to be rational, follow rules and – oh yes, not falling asleep.  One in six crashes resulting in death or injury on major roads are believed to be fatigue related.

Development of driverless cars will be stifled if manufacturers become liable for things which traditional car makers have never been liable

But whether for drones, driverless cars or other automated means of transport, expect to see enabling legislation – perhaps extending insurance obligations to owners, to keep developers safe to  develop.

The stimulus behind this is to keep the UK as a leading technology economy, safeguarding jobs and prosperity. Whilst this was not driven by Brexit, there is a Brexit angle - the UK’s  technology businesses rely heavily on attracting overseas talent. Their continued success relies on this continuing, and  Brexit -  the harder, the more so – threaten the flow of talent.


Paul Berwin is a Commercial and Digital Law Specialist and a Senior Partner at Berwins Solicitors

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