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Volvo wants Finland to make self-driving cars "legally responsible," not humans

The Swedish carmaker wants to start a dialogue with Finnish authorities about getting self-driving cars on Finnish roads.

Uber itseohjautuva auto.
An autonomous Volvo being tested by ride sharing firm Uber. Image: Kristoffer Tripplaar / AOP

For decades futurists have been predicting that self-driving vehicles will replace their human-driven ancestors. Although headlines about self-driving taxis and buses in Silicon Valley and other tech-savvy areas do appear, vehicles are still being driven by human beings. However, that is about to change - very soon.

Nearly two years ago, the Finnish capital rolled out a pilot of self-driving buses that operated as a feeder services on a test route in the Hernesaari district.

Like many automakers around the world, Swedish auto firm Volvo has ambitious plans for its upcoming lines of autonomous vehicles. The Nordic carmaker hopes to begin production of self-driving vehicles by the year 2021.

The technical hurdles in making vehicles drive to correct destinations without human intervention - and without injuring anyone in the process - are just part of getting such vehicles on the roads.

Apart from getting people used to the idea of cars scooting about on their own, there are major legal questions - particularly regarding liability.

Volvo's director of governmental affairs and key safety strategist, Anders Eugensson was in Finland to attend the 5G Momentum seminar last week, and spoke with Svenska Yle about the future of self-driving vehicles.

He said he'd like to see laws in Finland - and the rest of the world - changed. Eugensson said that when autonomous vehicles are involved in accidents current legislation still hold their human operators responsible.

"That's the [current] situation in many European countries, Finland included, and it is disturbing," Eugensson said.

He said that owners of fully-autonomous vehicles should be able to completely ignore the road when the car is driving itself, saying that people could be doing work on their laptops as the vehicles travel.

He said when cars are autonomous, owners - even drunk ones - should be able to use them and people shouldn't really even need a driver's licence to operate them.

Volvo promises to pay

He said there are two different forms of liability involved when accidents take place; financial and legal.

"One part of it is financial liability, in other words reimbursement for damages [caused by an accident]. And then there is the question of legal responsibility, fines or jail penalties that can be levied [for breaking the law]," Eugensson said.

As a corporation, Volvo has vowed to take full financial responsibility for accidents caused by their autonomous vehicles.

"If the car is in fully-automatic mode and something happens and it's proven that the car is responsible, then we'll take full responsibility for it," Eugensson said. "We will reimburse both insurance companies and vehicle owners."

The more problematic part of the issue is the question of legal liability, he said. In the most extreme example of current laws, the "operator" of an autonomous vehicle could be held criminally liable if an automated vehicle accidentally kills someone while driving on its own.

"Most countries in Europe [have laws] that hold the driver responsible when there's an accident. And we hope that Finland takes steps towards saying that a car can be held responsible. The driver should not be," Eugensson said.

"People who buy these kinds of cars and become 'drivers' should not be held responsible for something that is not their fault," he explained.

Post-accident analysis - particularly through the examination of data from self-driving vehicles' "black boxes" - will help determine if the car or the human was actually driving. And, he said, Volvo plans to fully cooperate in these kinds of investigations.

Rollout to places that allow them

"Because we really do not want owners and drivers who played no role in accidents to suffer [such consequences]," Eugensson said. "It's a way to tell our customers that we believe in this technology so much that we are prepared to take on this responsibility."

The company's plans to launch autonomous cars were delayed a few years from a slightly earlier projection to the year 2021. If that timeline is held, the company plans to start operating their self-driving cars in Silicon Valley as well as in Gothenburg, the Swedish city where Volvo has its headquarters.

The rollout of testing in these cities largely relies on local laws. For example, some US states have legislation that makes testing of autonomous vehicles possible, while others don’t.

Eugensson said the company would like to begin conversations with Finnish authorities about making legal exceptions for the testing and development of its vehicles in Finland.

Finnish Transport Minister Anne Berner was not able to comment before publication of the Svenska Yle report, but did say at the summit that Finland's heavy involvement in developing the next generation of mobile broadband - known as 5G - will help make the country a forerunner in self-driving vehicle tech.

This July, Finland will see the rollout of major reforms to taxi laws, a move which will likely bring back the ride-sharing firm Uber, a company which is deeply involved in autonomous vehicle research - and even real-life testing in some markets.

5G to play key role

Development of faster, more secure and higher-capacity mobile broadband networks is essential to the growth of autonomous vehicles.

Coming 5G networks, which are expected to be gradually rolled out in Finland's bigger cities at the beginning of 2019, are key, Eugensson said.

"Self-driving cars need fast connections in order to do many things, for example to download a map, or to ensure that there are no foreseeable problems on the roads. We can even communicate with other cars and cloud services on 5G," he said.

Autonomous vehicles of the future will also be able to collect data on road conditions, like how icy or wet the roads are - information which, when shared with other cars and road safety agencies, can be very valuable, Eugensson said. Cars will also be able to drive themselves to receive required service stations, if the user wants.

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