Law not ready for autonomous vehicle accidents

A passenger car rammed a self-driving bus at Tallinn's Ülemiste City on Tuesday.

PHOTO: Politsei

A collision of a passenger vehicle and a self-driving bus in Tallinn’s Ülemiste City marks the first time an autonomous vehicle has been involved in a crash in Estonia. Even though the so-called robot act is still in the pipeline, whether a vehicle has a driver or not doesn’t matter as far as motor third party liability insurance is concerned.

The accident happened at 10.52 a.m. on Tuesday on the intersection of Lennujaama tee and Sepise street when a Skoda Octavia passenger car drove out in front of the self-driving bus called Iseauto that had the right of way. Iseauto’s systems could not react quickly enough to the Skoda ignoring traffic rules and the vehicles collided.

“The accident was caused by the driver of the passenger car who failed to give way to the autonomous vehicle,” the police’s press representative Fred Püss said.

The collision resulted in minor damage to both vehicles and no people were hurt.

The case investigated

Because the incident was the first of its kind, the police were called to investigate. The Alarm Center received a call from the Skoda driver as the sides didn’t know how to record the circumstances of the accident. The operator of the self-driving bus that is obligated by law to accompany the vehicle could not help the driver either. The autonomous bus gets up to a speed of 15 kilometers per hour and all passengers have to wear a seat belt.

The bus was towed from the site and inspected on Tuesday evening. Even though the preliminary examination concluded that none of its sensors were damaged, the vehicle’s systems will be checked one by one. Operators could not say when the AV would return to service, while their goal is to put it back on the road as soon as possible.

Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) engineer Raivo Sell explained that the Iseauto is built to drive in an optimal fashion and prioritize safety. “The vehicle travels at slow speeds and there is a safety operator on board. The vehicle involved in the Ülemiste collision was built by Auve Tech based on TalTech’s Iseauto platform,” he said.

Head of communications for Auve Tech Paula Johanna Adamson said that the extent of damage caused to the bus is not clear yet. “Our preliminary assessments suggest that damage is minor.”

“As far as insurance is concerned, the Tuesday incident was an ordinary car crash that caused damage to the Auve Tech vehicle that will be paid for by the insurance company,” Adamson said, adding that insurance papers are filled out as per usual in that a form is filled out with a description of the collision and the parties’ information. “According to the law, the safety operator will be listed as the driver,” Adamson explained.

Head of the vehicle insurance department of Salva Kindlustus Tõnis Tohver said that it does not matter to the insurer whether a vehicle that has been deemed fit for traffic has a driver or not.

“It is the same situation if the accident involves a parked car the owner of which is not present. It is the vehicle that is involved and the insurance case will be solved in the standard way,” he explained, adding that usually the police are called when the person who suffered damage is unknown, while in this case, it was the safety operator representing the damaged vehicle.

“If the vehicle did not have a driver at the time, the driver’s information will not be filled in or the word “autonomous” will be entered instead,” Tohver said.

He added that if it is clear which vehicle caused the accident and there is no argument between the parties, compensation for damage will be paid out irrespective of the fact one party was a self-driving vehicle.

“This case definitely falls under normal traffic insurance as all vehicles taking part in traffic must have mandatory motor third party liability insurance,” he said.

Law in the works

Rules for the use of autonomous vehicles will be laid down in the artificial intelligence or so-called robot act that is in the works at the Ministry of Justice. The ministry hopes to send the bill out for coordination by summer’s end.

Until then, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications allows companies to test self-driving vehicles, while they need to be accompanied by safety operators.

Autonomous buses are being tested at two locations in Tallinn. Up to three buses that lack a steering wheel are driving around Ülemiste City and one in Kadriorg. The former are the result of cooperation between Auve Tech and TalTech, while the Kadriorg project is operated by TalTech and the Tallinn Transport Department.

The department’s project manager Jaagup Ainsalu recalled that the very first autonomous bus drove around in Tallinn in 2017 when Estonia held the European Council presidency. “We had two buses then and a month of test drives. We opened a regular line in Kadriorg in 2019 and in Ülemiste City this year,” Ainsalu said.

The aim of the experiment is to develop a smart public transit system and Ainsalu does not regard the Tuesday incident as a setback.

“These experiences will be taken along, analyzed and the very next software update will already be greatly improved. It takes time to train technology,” he said.