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Economy

Japan to place accident liability on self-driving car owners

Automakers will only be responsible in the case of a system flaw

Liability for autonomous driving accidents has became an urgent topic after an Uber Technologies test car struck a woman in Arizona.

TOKYO -- Japan plans to hold owners responsible for accidents involving self-driving cars, like regular vehicles, easing liability concerns among automakers and likely accelerating commercialization efforts.

The policy is part of the guidelines governing autonomous cars unveiled by the government's Council on Investments for the Future Friday. The plan is to submit related legislation to the Diet as early as 2019. 

"By taking concrete steps toward a legal framework, I would like Japan to take the lead in creating international rules," said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a council meeting.

The guidelines are meant to set regulatory and legal direction before self-driving cars become widespread -- likely in the first half of the next decade. The regulations will cover up to the third level of automation -- the stage where a car can operate itself with a driver present under certain conditions. Discussion concerning level four or five automation, or unmanned vehicles, will take place later.

As with regular vehicles, owners will generally be liable for accidents that occur while their cars operate autonomously and will be covered by government-mandated automobile insurance. Automakers will only be responsible if there is a clear flaw in the vehicle's system. Insurers are also expected to develop optional plans now that compulsory coverage requirements are settled.

To help clarify the cause of accidents, self-driving cars will be required to have devices that record such information as location, steering and the operational status of autonomous driving systems.

Damages from hacking will be treated the same as that from stolen cars as long as the owner takes proper security measures like updating the vehicle's systems.

There are also a host of issues, such as criminal liability for accidents, that have not been settled. Japan's road traffic laws, for example, may be inconsistent with autonomous driving issues since they are based on the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, which assumes human involvement. But there is little prospect that the convention will be updated. The possibility of criminal charges could also discourage program developers and automakers.

Determining operational conditions for autonomous driving like speed limits, hours and weather will also be crucial. The government will also have to create standards for control systems and resistance to cyberattacks. It plans to establish guidelines for the safety of self-driving cars this summer.

A woman in Arizona was killed on a public road earlier this month by a self-driving test vehicle from Uber Technologies. The accident has sparked a debate about responsibility for autonomous driving accidents.

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