Mercedes has announced that it will take legal responsibility for any accidents that occur when its autonomous driving systems are activated.
The company is currently rolling out “Drive Pilot” technology for its new S-Class and EQS sedan models, which is “Level 3” for range on a six-tier system designed by the Society of Automotive Engineersranging from level 0 (no automated driving assistance) to level 5 (the car drives alone everywhere without any intervention from the occupants of the vehicle).
Level 3 autonomy means drivers can let go of the steering wheel and take on other tasks, such as reading a book, while the car assumes full control of all driving functions. However, this is only in special conditions, such as in slow-speed motorway traffic, and the person in the driver’s seat should be able to regain control within seconds of an alert from the car.
This is a big step up from Level 2 autonomy, which requires manual driver monitoring at all times, and is currently common on new cars in the form of cruise control. adaptive and automated lane keeping.
Some cars like Audi, Mercedes, BMW, Genesis and Tesla have systems so advanced that they’re considered somewhere between Tier 2 and Tier 3 – dubbed Tier 2+ by experts. However, it is not legal to introduce Level 3 autonomy on production cars in many territories at this time.
The UK government said last year that a Tier 3 technology called Automatic Lane-Keeping Systems (ALKS) will allow cars to travel up to 37mph on motorways, although a change in traffic laws is necessary before it becomes legal. Last December, What Car? signaled that the change could come “early 2022”.
How the Mercedes Drive Pilot will work
The introduction of ALKS in the UK would pave the way for the activation of Mercedes’ Drive Pilot, pending type approval. Once that happens, Mercedes said it would accept full responsibility for crashes caused by flaws in the technology, but not by the driver’s failure to perform their duty of care.
In the event of disengagement which may occur when the car encounters road works, tunnels or inclement weather, the Mercedes Drive Pilot system will give the driver a 10-second warning allowing them to regain control, in which case Mercedes is legally liable in the l event of an accident ends. The company will also not be responsible for accidents that occur if the driver does not take over in time.
As a “responsible user” rather than a “driver” when the vehicle is in self-driving mode, the occupant will not be legally responsible for violations such as speeding or dangerous driving.
What happens if an accident is detected while the car is driving is another matter. In 2016, Mercedes driver assistance system manager admitted that if a Mercedes driving autonomously detected an accident, it would try at all costs to save the occupant, even at the expense of pedestrians.
Christoph von Hugo said: “If you know you can save at least one person, save at least that one. Save whoever is in the car,” adding: “If all you know for sure is that a death can be avoided, then that is your first priority.
However, the Level 3 Autonomy is unlikely to have to make life or death decisions due to the relatively slow speeds and types of roads it will be able to deploy on.
So far, Mercedes’ self-driving system can only be used on highways in Germany that have been specifically mapped by the automaker, as well as some roads in Nevada and California in the United States. In these territories it only operates at speeds up to around 37mph, which is in line with forthcoming UK regulations.
Drivers must be made aware of responsibility
Mercedes’ announcement follows the release of a joint report in January by the Law Commissions of England, Wales and Scotland which called for law reforms to exempt owners of self-driving cars from liability. legal in the event of an accident due to a failure of the autonomous driving systems. .
“The issue of liability in automated vehicles is complex and nuanced,” said Matthew Avery, head of research strategy at Thatcham Research, who viewed the report. “It is too crude to suggest that the automaker should be responsible in all circumstances; there will be times when an accident is and is not the responsibility of the automaker.
“What is evident in the case of Mercedes, the first to have approved – albeit in Germany – a technology that will allow drivers to disengage and do something else, is that when the automated system is in control, the car manufacturer will be responsible.
“What is less simple is an accident that occurs when the driver has not ‘respected his duty of vigilance’, for example by refusing to take control of the car when asked to do so.”
Avery said it will be up to carmakers to ensure UK drivers of their cars are “confident, comfortable and have a good understanding of their legal responsibilities” under the Road Traffic Act.
“Absolute clarity is required for drivers regarding their legal obligations behind the wheel and their understanding of how the system works, particularly when transferring the system to the driver.”
He suggested that drivers who have become engrossed in other tasks for long periods of time may take a long time to regain control when the car prompts them to – something he called “getting back into the loop”.
“Insurance claims will require careful scrutiny, so providing data to help insurers understand who was in control of the vehicle at the time of the accident, the system or the driver will also be vital,” he said. declared.
“Trust will diminish if confusion reigns and lengthy lawsuits become common, hindering the adoption of technology and the realization of its many societal benefits.”
Avery believes a rating system will help motorists know which systems are the best, and therefore which ones they can trust.
“Fostering consumer confidence in early iterations of automated driving is paramount. This is where independent consumer review will have an important role to play in driving safe adoption by raising awareness of systems that are not as good as others.
Legally speaking, under new stricter rules on mobile phone use behind while driving, the “responsible user” of an autonomous vehicle will not be allowed to use their phone while driving, except for navigation purposes when the phone is fixed in a base. However, it is likely that the revised traffic regulations will be changed again in parallel with the introduction of the ALKS.
At present, drivers caught using a phone while driving risk a £200 fine and six penalty points, although a ban and a fine of up to £1,000 is possible.
Mercedes is the second manufacturer to receive legal approval in a certain territory for the use of a level 3 autonomous driving system, following the approval in Japan in 2020 of Honda’s Traffic Jam Pilot on Honda Legend models.
Audi’s A8 is said to have Tier 3 compatible technology, although it has yet to be rolled out to production models. In April, BMW will launch its next-generation 7 Series and its electric i7 equivalent, both equipped with Level 3 technology.