VOLVO HAS given a boost to the development of self-driving cars by becoming the first manufacturer to say that it will accept liability if one of its autonomous vehicles makes a mistake and crashes.
The announcement last week by Hakan Samuelsson, the firm’s chief executive, removes a huge obstacle to allowing driverless vehicles on public roads. It marks a shift after more than a century of motoring law in which drivers have been held accountable for their vehicle.
“When the car is driving autonomously, it is like riding an elevator — the driver does nothing,” said Erik Coelingh, Volvo’s senior technical leader for driver support systems. “If there is a crash because of a failure of the car itself, we have liability. No other car maker has taken a clear position on this like us.”
A trial planned for 2017 in Gothenburg, where the company has its headquarters, will involve 100 motorists using driverless Volvos on roads around the Swedish city.
The British government has set a target of the same year to update road laws to allow driverless cars to operate.
Coelingh said that customers could be able to buy the vehicles by 2020, although early models may be able to drive themselves only on motorways and in slow-moving traffic queues.
Caroline Coates, head of the automotive sector at the law firm DWF, said other car makers would probably have to follow Volvo’s lead. “They are the first manufacturer to put their head above the parapet,” she said, “but if a car is driving autonomously you would expect to look at the vehicle first [rather than the driver] when assigning liability.”