Mercedes Accepts Liability

Wed 30th Mar 2022

The issue of who is responsible should a self-driving car have an accident has been raging for some years, with artificial intelligence effectively taking the driver out of the equation when automotive autonomy is triggered.

Tesla were possibly the first brand to test the case, their infamous test crash which caused a fatality in the United States led to all sorts of legal complications, and many insurers admit that they are confused as to how they can handle incidents.

But most of the bigger brands who are testing self-driving tech have indicated that it would be car manufacturer who would be responsible for any accidents or crashes - they are after all encouraging governments to legislate for autonomy.

Now Mercedes have announced in a statement that if their ‘Drive Pilot’ system causes a car crash then they would take full liability. It’s a landmark announcement, particularly as some vehicles will be allowed to employ ‘Level 3’ autonomy in the UK later this year, and Germany has already signed-off for the technology on some stretches of motorway.

Level 3 autonomy is the first to allow the user to take their hands off the wheel and even perform other actions, such as reading a book, and the technology is installed in Mercedes’ new S-Class and EQS models.

A report on Road & Track website quotes the company’s senior development manager for Drive Pilot, Gregor Kugelmann who said the company would take liability. But in a statement shared with safety and security group, Thatcham Research, Mercedes said:  “Liability in the event of an accident is determined by the circumstances of each individual case. 

“If, for example, the driver fails to comply with their duty of care and causes an accident as a result, they are liable alongside the owner for the resulting damage.”

That phrase ‘duty of care’ is sure to give legislators sweaty palms, but Thatcham Research themselves admit that the issue of who is legally responsible is a difficult problem to solve.

“The issue of liability in automated vehicles is complex and nuanced. It's too crude to suggest that the car maker should be liable in all circumstances; there will be times when an accident is and isn't the car maker's responsibility,” said Matthew Avery, Thatcham’s chief strategy research office.

“What is apparent in the case of Mercedes, the first to have approval – albeit in Germany – for technology that will allow drivers to disengage and do other things, is that when the automated system is in control, the carmaker will be liable.

“What's less straightforward is an accident that occurs when the driver has failed 'to comply with their duty of care', for example when refusing to retake control of the car when prompted.

“It will be incumbent on car makers to ensure drivers of their cars are confident, comfortable and have a strong grasp of their legal responsibilities – which in the UK would be in accordance with the Road Traffic Act.”