Can You Insure a Self-driving Car?

car stopped at a busy pedestrian crossing


If a self-driving car has an accident, who's responsible: the manufacturer, owner or operator? Well, the answer is complicated.


There aren't any self-driving cars (SDCs) on our roads just yet, but between Google's Waymo, an autonomous taxi service, and Tesla's Model S Autopilot, we're getting closer every day. Yet South Africa doesn't have laws that would allow for SDCs to operate on our roads. What do we need to do to get there, and what are the insurance implications should some bright spark sneak an SDC or sort-of-autonomous one (with camera-enhanced cruise control) into the country and unleash it on the N1?


Self-driving cars in South Africa


Charissa Chengalroyen of Lawtons Africa says that the insurance implications are determined by specific Road Accident Fund (RAF) Act and Consumer Protection Act (CPA) definitions, in the absence of specific legislation for SDCs and related accidents.


A motor vehicle is defined by Section 1 of the RAF Act as 'any vehicle designed or adapted for propulsion or haulage on a road by means of fuel, gas or electricity, including a trailer, a caravan, an agricultural or any other implement designed or adapted to be drawn by such motor vehicle'.


'In essence,' says Chengalroyen, 'each element in the definition is proved in the affirmative. SDCs fall under the definition of a motor vehicle, but may not be covered by the RAF due to the fact that compensation for injuries must result from the "driving" of said motor vehicle.' The courts would need to consider whether an operator of an SDC is a 'driver' to cover personal injury claims arising from SDC accidents.


'According to the Consumer Protection Act's definition of "consumers", it can be said that in relation to SDCs, the person who purchases the vehicle and the passengers inside it would be the consumer,' she says. 'Additionally, SDCs would, currently, fall within the purview of this Act as they would likely be deemed a "good or product". Therefore, the CPA may also provide cover for SDC accidents based on mechanical failure or defective goods.'


What are the ideal regulations around self-driving cars?


Rather than relying on existing legislation and arguing where SDCs fit into areas which were never designed for them, Chengalroyen says that the ideal would be the establishment of a new piece of legislation to provide certainty.


'The current legislative framework that could cover SDC accidents is fragmented,' she says. 'For example, the RAF covers bodily injury claims, whereas the CPA is of broader application and covers claims against damage to property and bodily injuries. The ideal legislation should provide for the establishment of a board or committee comprising experts in SDC technology. It also needs to provide for the manner in which compensation should be catered for. For example, the creation of an insurance fund similar to the RAF, where the manufacturers of SDCs contribute in terms of their market share.'


Hypothetically, how would self-driving car insurance claims work?


Now that we know there's no specific legislation that governs SDCs operation on South African roads, the question is: how would an insurance claim work in the event of an SDC accident?


Chengalroyen says that where no legislation is applicable, common law governs liability. 'Bearing in mind that some SDCs are not fully automated, the duty is upon the user to be alert or vigilant in order for them to retake control of the SDC to prevent an accident from occurring,' she says. 'The operator of the vehicle would be liable in an instance where, for example, they are intoxicated when operating the vehicle, as it is their duty to remain alert when doing so.'


On the other hand, she says, liability lies with the manufacturer if the accident is caused by a defect in the vehicle's systems. 'For example, let's look at an SDC that is fully automated. If an accident were to occur in such an SDC because the sensors could not detect an object and collided with it, the manufacturer would be held liable.'


In the event that the vehicle is fully automated and doesn't have an operator on board, and the SDC spontaneously engages itself and drives off, the manufacturer would be held liable. 'However, if the operator engages the SDC technology and allows the vehicle to operate, knowing that no-one is on board, the operator will likely be held liable on the basis of negligence,' says Chengalroyen.


Either way, you'll want to make sure your car insurance is up to date and that you're getting the best deal. Bookmark Hippo's Car Insurance comparison page to compare quotes today.


This article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as financial, legal or medical advice.

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