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Pinning responsibility for self-driving car accidents

With local carmakers and electronics giant Samsung jumping into autonomous car business along with the government’s plan to commercialize the sector by the year 2020, interest is growing over one tricky matter: who will be held responsible for accidents involving such vehicles?

Automated vehicle is a revolutionary concept in motoring as the human drivers take a backseat while the computerized machine, instead, takes control of navigation.

But the question of liability for accidents involving driverless cars still remains unanswered in Korea. Is the owner or the self-driving car responsible for damages? Or perhaps, the manufacturer of the technology?

A local law firm Hwawoo in Seoul says owners, will most likely be held responsible.

The firm said in its analysis that the owners of self-driving cars can be held liable for an accident, referring to the current law. 

The law stipulates that a person who willingly drives a vehicle is liable for damages in case of accidents. It means that drivers hold absolute legal responsibility for an injury or death without having to prove their carelessness or fault. The logic is likely to be applied for self-driving cars as well, the firm said.

But opinion is divided whether the owners of the self-driving cars can be punished on charges of accidental homicides or not. The law is based on the premise that the drivers are obliged to remain alert while driving the vehicles. But legal experts have been questioning whether it will be appropriate to apply this logic for owners of self-driving cars when the purpose of having such cars is to enjoy the freedom of not driving?

The development of driverless cars would create a string of legal problems that go beyond rules applied for traditional cars, the firm warned. “To settle the automated vehicle industry, not only the technological development but also legal and administrative advancement should be preceded,” the firm said.

Not just the drivers, even the manufacturers can be held responsible, it added.

The product liability law invalidates a contract that excludes or limits the liability of a manufacturer on a product. This means that a manufacturer will be difficult to shift the entire responsibility to a customer in case of accidents involving automated vehicles, Hwawoo said.

This manufacturer liability approach has stood in the way of carmakers rolling out their technology.

Technologically, Hyundai Motor is on par with Apple and Google regarding self-driving cars. But the carmaker has been careful about applying self-driving technology to its latest models, citing the question of liability and lack of infrastructure. It has so far applied only basic self-driving elements -- such as highway driving assistance system -- in its latest Genesis model, the EQ900.

By Cho Chung-un (