Automated Vehicles and Third-Party Liability: A European Perspective

By: Dr Michael Chatzipanagiotis & Dr George Leloudas, Associate Professor, HRC School of Law at Swansea University

This article examines third-party liability issues of automated vehicles (AV) as currently regulated in Europe at the level of the European Union (EU) and at national level.

We begin with a brief presentation of international law on traffic rules, whose binding effect has influenced the content of European provisions. We proceed with the analysis of the provisions of the Product Liability Directive and the Motor Insurance Directive in view of their applicability to AV. Subsequently, we briefly analyze the pertinent provisions of German and English law on product liability and road traffic liability, including the special rules of the German Road Traffic Act, which focuses on the liability of keeper and the driver, as well as the English Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018, which focuses on insurance and represents a different approach. We then outline the legal landscape in the US and compare it with the European. Afterwards, we examine briefly less obvious parameters, such as human-factors, the role of media and ethics, and explore the potential for international harmonization.

We conclude that, at present, the risks and benefits from the use of AV are not making a convincing case to depart from traditional liability rules on road traffic and defective products. There is no uninsurable disaster potential and no radical change in people’s lives to justify limiting the legal right of uninvolved victims to receive compensation compared to ordinary vehicles. There are more appropriate means than liability reform to incentivize technological development. Moreover, establishing uniform international liability rules would be desirable, but appears neither necessary nor politically feasible.