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What Do Self-Driving Cars Mean For Auto Liability Insurance?


Google's self-driving car has hit an obstacle. That's actually not a figure of speech, it is a literal fact. On February 14, one of Google's self-driving prototypes hit a bus.

STACEY HENDLER ROSS: When it pulled out into the lane, our bus was already going by.


That's Stacey Hendler Ross, a spokesperson for the Valley Transportation Authority in Santa Clara, Calif. She says the self-driving car was apparently trying to get around some sandbags in the street as the city bus was passing.

ROSS: So these buses on this particular product are extended, are what we call articulated buses, and they have sort of an accordion in the middle. And the driverless car sort of pulled out into the middle of the lane and it struck the middle of the bus.

CORNISH: Pow (ph), right in the accordion part.

SHAPIRO: Pow (ph).


SHAPIRO: Google admits the bus had the right of way, and they say they bear some responsibility for the crash. That's a first for Google. Nobody was hurt in this low-speed accident, neither bus passengers nor the testers in Google's modified Lexus.

CORNISH: Google declined our request for an interview today. Last month, we spoke to Chris Urmson, the director of Google's self-driving car project, and Urmson told us that Google prototype cars are still learning.

CHRIS URMSON: We can't program them for every conceivable event, there's an infinite number of them. And so the trick, really, is to have the vehicles generalize what they've observed in the past and be able to understand when they don't know what's going on. And in those situations, do the cautious thing.

SHAPIRO: Google said in a monthly report from the self-driving car project that in the future, quote, "Our cars will more deeply understand that buses and other large vehicles are less likely to yield."

CORNISH: All of this raises a question - how will liability work in a future full of self-driving cars? Well, if they really turn out to be as safe as promised, personal injury attorney Jason Fernandez says it will dramatically change his work.

JASON FERNANDEZ: I'll have to find a new job, and I'm OK with that.

SHAPIRO: In all seriousness, Jason Fernandez says lawyers will have to hire computer experts to investigate accidents. He might even be less likely to take a case.

FERNANDEZ: If someone now is involved in an accident with a driverless car and they sustain very minor injuries, the answer is probably no because the cost of investigating such a claim would overwhelm the value of the case.

CORNISH: Auto insurance might become more mundane, like product liability insurance. But we're not there yet. For the moment, a minor self-driving car accident still makes headlines.

ROSS: Yes, we've gotten many calls - international. Even though this was considered basically a fender bender, it's big news to people.

SHAPIRO: That was Santa Clara Valley Transportation spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.