VW Seeking Industry Alliance for Self-driving Cars, Legal Protection for When They Crash

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Volkswagen Group is interested in teaming up with other automakers to establish a new industry standard for self-driving technology. While the move would likely help streamline development, VW’s primary concern seems to be legal protection in the event an autonomous vehicle makes a mistake.

The idea of an automaker preparing itself to better cope with the legal ramifications of accidentally killing one of its customers isn’t particularly encouraging, but it’s at least understandable.

Pushing for an industry standard for new tech is commonplace within the automotive sector. Last year, several manufacturers adopted Automotive Grade Linux in an attempt to create a default, open-sourced platform for in-car infotainment. While similar in concept to the standardizing of autonomous technology, the obvious difference is that there usually aren’t lives riding on infotainment systems.

There have, however, been several incidents where autonomous technology and advanced driving aids have failed over the last two years, resulting in a loss of human life and extremely negative publicity. As self-driving solutions are still in development, more accidents will likely arise in the coming years. Volkswagen simply wants to establish an alliance to share development costs and liability claims.

VW’s plans are not yet public, though Automotive News spoke with an anonymous VW executive who outlined the company’s corporate goals and described why they’re being put into place. “When you are involved in an accident, you have a better chance in court when you can prove that your car adheres to the latest technical standard,” the individual said.

“How do you create an industry standard? Ideally, by getting others to use the same sensor kit and software, so for that reason an overarching cooperation between automakers is one of the options we are examining,” continued the VW executive. “The question is: How do we bring products to market that guarantee we made ourselves as small a target for damage claims as possible?”

It sounds a little diabolical on the surface. But it’s not simply a matter of VW figuring out how to best cover its ass in the event of a disaster. Standardizing things helps to create a more level playing field, allowing automakers to tell regulators and courtrooms they followed the agreed-upon actions and weren’t shirking responsibility.

That issue isn’t helped by the lax regulation of autonomous technologies. While giving automakers and tech companies a green light to test whatever systems they think might work has helped, governments helped accelerate development. But the byproduct is a nearly complete lack of legal protection for both the manufacturers of these vehicles and the general public. “Law firms are already in the starting blocks,” the executive said.

Volkswagen is believed to be in discussions with more than 15 different companies, including automakers, concerning the prospective alliance. But standardizing a technology that’s dependent on countless systems, many of them proprietary, isn’t going to be easy. It’s also going to be difficult to get every member group to commit to terms when some are leading the charge into the autonomous revolution, while others are just leaving the self-driving nest.

From Automotive News:

A key criterion when considering partners is whether all can agree that the technology would be open source, meaning there was no restriction on its use by participants. This would also help with ensuring tests were comparable, so validation data from one party would be applicable to all.

Some companies have approached Volkswagen offering to license it a drop-in solution, but this is considered out of the question. VW believes it must gain expertise in all elements of the artificial intelligence down to a self-driving vehicle’s path planning. Simply integrating a supplier’s “black box” into the vehicle without access to the technology behind it would not be acceptable.

However, it might be worth it to share some of the inevitable legal pitfalls associated with self-driving vehicles. “I don’t believe we are the only ones asking ourselves if we really want to take these kinds of risks,” the VW staffer said. “No one wants a repeat of the Uber accident.”

That incident involved a self-driving Volvo XC90 testbed owned by Uber. In spring of this year, the vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian crossing the street in Tempe, Arizona. Its systems completely failed to identify the individual or make any attempt to brake, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. While the police report faulted the backup driver for negligence after on-board cameras caught the individual watching a cellphone video, Uber still settled with the victim’s family out of court.

Options for an alliance could be presented to the VW Group management board as early as next month.

[Image: NHTSA]

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