The Implications of Self-Driving Cars on Accident Claims: A Glimpse into the Future

What once seemed like a wild and far-off idea is now a reality that every driver and pedestrian needs to be aware of: self-driving cars. The future is almost here, and that means across Ontario, we could share our roads with automated vehicles (AVs) in the very near future. Given that most motor vehicle accidents that occur are the result of human error, taking humans out of the equation should theoretically decrease that number. But, as the technology currently exists, drivers still play a key role behind the wheel, and because this technology is still emerging, it will take time before those drivers are fully comfortable with the capabilities of an AV and how they perform in the real world. The road ahead is still being plotted, which means there’s a lot of uncertainty around what happens when one of these vehicles is involved in a collision, including determining who is at fault, how the current laws apply, and how legislation and insurance policy might need to shift to address this changing landscape.

Photo by gibblesmash asdf on Unsplash

How Autonomous Are They?

The broad term “automated vehicles” is a slightly misleading name when we talk about the real-life implications of these vehicles on our roads today. Powered by a combination of AI technologies, cameras, sensors, and radar, AVs are currently being tested throughout Ontario and across the world.

The technology exists along a spectrum of levels, which influences the types of vehicles available to the public versus what exists in a more limited capacity for private companies or researchers.

Here are the 6 levels of automated vehicles:

  • Level 0 – No Automation: The car has no autonomous features, and the driver is fully in control.
  • Level 1 – Driver Assistance: Includes features that augment your driver experience for safety and ease-of-use. Think of adaptive cruise control, lane departure warnings, and other features that work alongside a driver having full use of the car’s steering and braking. Many cars in production include these types of features.
  • Level 2 – Partial Driving Automation: The vehicle can control steering and acceleration, but the driver must still pay attention and take control if necessary. This level isn’t fully automated because a driver still occupies the driver’s seat and can resume control over the vehicle at any point. Tesla’s Autopilot and Cadillac’s Super Cruise features are examples of  Level 2.
  • Level 3 – Conditional Automation: At this level, the vehicle handles most driving tasks on its own, but the driver must be ready to take control. Level 3 includes features like “Traffic Jam Chauffer” which activates when travelling at low speeds, maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles within the lane, all without the driver needing to touch the pedals.
  • Level 4 – High Automation: The vehicle can operate without a driver in most situations but may still require human intervention. Here, the driver would not need to watch the road while the automated system takes care of the steering, acceleration and deceleration.
  • Level 5 – Full Automation: An automated system drives the car independently, without the need for a human driver to be present.

Currently, cars that reach up to Level 3 are available to the public. Level 3 is a slightly murky area at the moment because of the vast leap in both technology and regulation that this type of automation implies. For instance, Teslas come stock with a “Base Autopilot” feature, which is considered to be Level 2, but owners may upgrade to “Enhanced Autopilot” which has elements of a Level 3 AV on certain urban roads. The jump from Level 2 to 3 also implies a shift in liability, which is why few manufacturers are not fully advertising their cars as Level 3. Level 4 and 5 vehicles can be operated by authorized applicants, through Ontario’s Automated Vehicle Pilot Program.

AVs and the Highway Traffic Act

Ontario was the first jurisdiction in Canada to regulate the testing of automated vehicles on public roads. Section 228 of the Ontario Highway Traffic Act gives the Lieutenant Governor the power to establish a project for research, testing or evaluation of any matter governed by the Act relevant to highway traffic, and so in 2016, the province launched a 10 year pilot program to test AVs under the Ministry of Transportation. Jeffrey A. Preszler, lawyer at Preszler Injury Lawyers, emphasizes that the Automated Vehicle Pilot Program specifies a number of obligations that AV drivers must adhere to, including accepting full liability for their actions. There are several stipulations outlined in the program for drivers, depending on the Level of the AV they intend to drive.

Accidents in Driver-Assist Mode: Who is Responsible?

The wording of the Automated Vehicle Pilot Program makes it clear that drivers still hold a tremendous amount of responsibility when it comes to operating a car with any automated features. As the spectrum of AV Levels indicate, a great deal of functions performed in an AV still require a driver to be present in the driver’s seat, and to be aware of the driving environment around them at all times. Though AVs may change a driver’s relationship to their car and how they experience their drive, using automated features such as driver-assist mode, or parking assist, does not mean the person behind the wheel can ignore their surroundings and stare at their phone.

In the case of autonomous vehicles, liability may extend beyond the vehicle owner to include manufacturers, software developers, and other parties involved in the vehicle’s design and operation. Seeking compensation for damages could mean that injured accident survivors will also need to pursue product liability claims, explains Jeffrey A. Preszler.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) published a report on auto insurance for automated vehicles that sets out detailed recommendations for a future AV insurance framework. This framework includes three major components:

  • A single insurance policy that covers both driver negligence and the automated technology. Injured accident survivors would be compensated by the AV’s insurer in the event of a collision, regardless of whether the human operator or automated technology was in control at the time of the accident.
  • A data-sharing arrangement with vehicle manufacturers, owners, and insurers. Currently, the vehicle manufacturers producing AVs are not sharing the data they’re collecting, even though they’re using public roads for their tests.
  • Update the federal vehicle safety standards with technology and cyber security standards. It has yet to be seen how vulnerable AVs might be to cyber-attacks, which could lead to another variable when considering liability in a vehicle collision.

What the Future Holds

Technology, laws, and regulations are still a long way off from fully automated or autonomous vehicles being a regular occurrence on Ontario’s roads. For now, drivers are staying in the driver’s seat, and their responsibilities behind the wheel remain vital for safe roads and highways.




About Joel Levy 2575 Articles
Editor-In-Chief at Toronto Guardian. Photographer and Writer for Toronto Guardian and Joel Levy Photography