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California Lawmakers Hear Testimony On Who Should Be Held Liable When Driverless Cars Crash

Eric Risberg / AP

Eric Risberg / AP

Who should be liable if a driverless car crashes into another vehicle, a bicyclist or pedestrian on California’s roadways? And how much insurance should driverless car owners be required to carry?

With Americans nervous about riding in driverless cars, California state lawmakers are starting the long process of deciding who should be held responsible when these new vehicles crash on state roadways or are potentially hacked by criminals.

The California State Senate Committee on Insurance heard testimony on those questions and others at the state Capitol Wednesday. The informational hearing raised more questions than it answered.

Curt Augustine of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said his industry would work with lawmakers and regulators on the liability issue.

He urged them, however, not to pass any laws prematurely.

“Automakers are prepared to work with legislators, regulators, insurers and other stakeholders to address these challenges,” Augustine said. “We don’t have all the answers at this time. We believe there is time to do this and forums like this are critical to begin that process.”

Augustine estimated that autonomous vehicles won’t be prevalent on the state’s roadways until the 2030s. A report by AAA this week found three-quarters of Americans are afraid to ride in a self-driving vehicle.

Asked who should be responsible if a driverless car is hacked and crashes, Augustine said the criminal hacker should be held liable.

Jacquie Serna of the Consumer Attorneys of California told Capital Public Radio before the hearing that solving the liability question is critical.

“The issues of liability and insurance will be the things that get the public trust in this new technology,” Serna said. “Unfortunately until these things are fool proof there will be things that go wrong as they develop and get safer.”

Serna said her association is pushing to increase insurance limits for the manufacturers of driverless cars above the $5 million limit for the companies that are now testing the vehicles in the state.

There are 26 companies currently testing driverless cars in California. Drivers are required to be behind the wheel of those vehicles.

State regulators expect to issue rules later this year allowing companies to test those vehicles without drivers.

Wednesday’s hearing came on the same day the California Department of Motor Vehicles allowed Uber to return its self-driving cars to public roadways, according to an article by the Associated Press.

Agency spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez said the DMV also approved 48 people as backup drivers who must sit behind the wheel in case the prototype cars malfunction.

The move resolves a conflict dating to December, when Uber rolled out a self-driving car service in San Francisco without the approval of state regulators. The company doesn’t plan to pick up passengers, at least for now, the AP reported.

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