AVs and Insurance: Is There A Purpose For No-Fault Without A Driver?

In a recent article published on Reuters Regulatory Intelligence, a DC-area lawyer said the following regarding the potential of implementing no-fault insurance “to” automated vehicles:

“Drivers have an inherent incentive to drive safely, so as not to be injured or killed on the roadways. That inherent incentive is what mitigates the “moral hazard” of a no-fault system. But in a no-fault model for autonomous vehicles, the incentives toward safety would be degraded given that manufacturers do not suffer the physical consequences of unsafe operation, as do drivers.”

Intuitively, this seems right. Yet, I thought: is there more to it? What does a world with an AV no-fault insurance scheme would look like?

This might be puzzling at first: what does one mean with no-fault AV insurance? In a more standard setting, a no-fault insurance system means that one gets the benefits of their own insurance without regard to the actual “fault” (such as negligence) and that civil suits on the basis of one’s fault are banned or severely restricted. No-fault systems are straightforward and predictable, although potentially less “just,” to the extent that a negligent driver may get away with nothing more than a deductible to pay or eventually a higher premium.

There was, and there still is, a good policy ground behind no-fault systems around car accidents: avoiding the social cost of civil litigation, and shifting the financial cost of such litigation towards the insurers, between whom things are more often than not settled out of court. Those we want to protect with no-fault insurance schemes are drivers (and passengers), and that is a majority of the population.

Now let’s consider AVs. Who do we want to protect? Passengers, for sure. But drivers? There is no driver! Or rather, there are many drivers. To some extent, at least under a layman’s understanding of the term “driver,” all the actors along the supply chain are driving the AV. Or, to be more precise, it is difficult to pinpoint a single driver: the “operator”? The software designer? And that is already assuming that there is a single entity who designed the software or operates what may be a fleet of AVs. And there may be others, as the AV industry continues to evolve; we can already see that various paths are taken by industry players, some acting for a form of vertical integration, others relying on a variety of suppliers, in a less streamlined way.

Do these all these industry players deserve extra protection? They are all corporate entities after all, and as the lawyer mentions in the above article, none of them are subject to physical injury in case of an accident. While expensive litigation can drive corporations to the ground, the case for shifting costs to insurers, when it comes to AV drivers, appears less clear. What is clear, though, is that human victims of an accident involving an AV ought to be as protected as if the accident did not involve an AV, and maybe even more.

The final answer will come from lawmakers. Moreover, one should not forget that no-fault insurance is mandatory only in a minority of US states, despite being prevalent in the rest of the world. Yet I believe there might be a case here to adopt a legal scheme which would both guarantee a litigation-free recourse to human accident victims, potentially in the form of an industry-funded guarantee fund, while giving the opportunity to the various players along the supply chain to fight it out, in court if need be, on the basis of the reality of their involvement in the cause of the accident; they are all sophisticated players after all and all share in the benefits of the risk they create. The stories of human victims, though, are what may “kill” the industry, if not enough care is taken to ensure a high level of legal protection.