The arrival of self-driving cars on our roads has come a step closer following new recommendations for legal reforms, making manufacturers and software developers – rather than human drivers – liable if a vehicle crashes.
The Law Commission today published a report calling for a new ‘Automated Vehicles Act’, which will regulate vehicles that can drive themselves and make clear who could face prosecution if a self-driving car drives dangerously or causes an accident.
The Automated Vehicle Act would aim to resolve the biggest grey area concerning the introduction of self-driving technology on our roads, which is who is deemed liable when something goes wrong.
Safety experts described the report as a ‘crucial first step’ that could see self-driving cars used on our roads in the next 12 months if recommendations are approved by parliament.
Is this a sign that self-driving cars are taking a step closer? The Law Commission today published recommendations stating that a motorist should NOT be held liable if a vehicle crashes when a self-driving system is active
The Law Commissions’ proposal published today, outlines that when a self-driving system is active, a human in the driver’s seat would legally become a ‘user-in-charge’ – and would avoid prosecution if the vehicle drives itself dangerously or causes a crash.
This would mean immunity from a wide range of offences, such as exceeding speed limits and running red lights when the self-driving feature is in operation.
Instead, the company or body that obtained the authorisation for the technology’s use would become an ‘Authorised Self-Driving Entity’ (ADSE) and be held responsible for the car’s actions in the eyes of the law.
The ASDE would be required to work with a regulatory body, in order to avoid repeat occurrences by providing data to understand who was at fault and where liability lies following a collision.
The ADSE could also face sanctions if regulators deem necessary.
A user-in-charge would still be required to retain some duties, such as holding a driving licence, having insurance and ensuring occupants are wearing seatbelts. And they will have to remain within the drink-drive limit.
The report recommends that when a self-driving system is active a human in the driver’s seat would legally become a ‘user-in-charge’ – and would avoid prosecution if the vehicle drives itself dangerously or causes a crash
The Law Commissions said there should be additional requirements for vehicles authorised to drive themselves without there being a human in the driver’s seat at all where in this case all human occupants become ‘passengers’ and are void of liability
Crucially, the Law Commission adds that manufacturers will need to market technology appropriately, ensuring there is a clear distinction between ‘assisted-driving’ features, requiring a human to be engaged at all times – such as adaptive cruise control – and those systems that allow for self driving.
It says this clear distinction ‘would help to minimise the risk of collisions caused by members of the public thinking that they do not need to pay attention to the road while a driver assistance feature is in operation’.
‘A vehicle should only be authorised as self-driving if it is safe even if an individual is not monitoring the driving environment, the vehicle or the way that it drives,’ the report adds.
It comes after a ruling in a German court found that Tesla’s use of the term ‘Autopilot’ to describe its cars’ autonomous driving capabilities was ‘misleading for consumers’.
The Law Commission also called for additional requirements for vehicles authorised to drive themselves without there being a human in the driver’s seat at all.
Occupants in this scenario would be considered ‘passengers’ without a user-in-charge and the licensed operator would become responsible for overseeing the safety of the entire journey.
There would also be requirements for passenger services to be accessible, especially to older and disabled people.
Commenting on the report, Public Law Commissioner Nicholas Paines QC, said: ‘We have an unprecedented opportunity to promote public acceptance of automated vehicles with our recommendations on safety assurance and clarify legal liability.’
Transport Minister Trudy Harrison added: ‘The development of self-driving vehicles in the UK has the potential to revolutionise travel, making every day journeys safer, easier and greener.
‘This Government has been encouraging development and deployment of these technologies to understand their benefits. However, we must ensure we have the right regulations in place, based upon safety and accountability, in order to build public confidence.
‘That’s why the Department funded this independent report and I look forward to fully considering the recommendations and responding in due course.’
Commenting on the report, Edmund King, AA president, said it is vitally important that drivers are not encouraged to take their hands off the wheel until self-driving systems are regulated and fail-safe.
‘The Law Commission is right to distinguish between driver-assistance features and self-driving and to ensure driver assistance features aren’t marketed as self-driving,’ he said.
‘What is less clear is when such technologies can be used on the road.
‘The Department of Transport has already missed its 2021 ambitions to get trails of fully driverless cars on the roads although there is now a trail underway in Milton Keynes which we will watch with interest.
‘Meanwhile, there still remains a large level of scepticism amongst the driving public who are unconvinced that fully autonomous cars can co-exist alongside human drivers.’
Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer at Thatcham Research, an organisation which was part of the consultation for the Law Commissions’ report, said the safe introduction of self-driving systems is ‘fraught with risk’ but legal reforms put forward by the commission would be ‘a significant step’ to bring clarity for industry and consumers regarding who is liable if collisions occur.
‘In the next 12 months, we’re likely to see the first iterations of self-driving features on cars in the UK,’ he said.
This includes the use of Automated Lane Keeping Systems – or ALKS – on Britain’s motorways at speeds up to 37mph, which was first announced by MPs back in August 2020.
ALKS can steer a car by itself and allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel entirely. Such systems are already available in some of the latest cars on the market, including the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
Mr Avery added: ‘It’s significant that the Law Commission report highlights the driver’s legal obligations and how they must understand that their vehicle is not yet fully self-driving: it has self-driving features that, in the near future, will be limited to motorway use at low speeds.’
The Government first revealed plans to allow for Automated Lane Keeping Systems to be used on motorways back in August 2020
Drivers of cars fitted with ‘Automated Lane Keeping Systems’ (ALKS) are expected to be legally allowed to use them on motorways and take their hands off the wheel, though there still remains questions over who would be liable if these vehicles were involved in accidents
He went on to explain that the Law Commission’s recommendation is that a user-in-charge will need to be ready to take back control from a self-driving system at any time – and won’t be permitted to sleep or use their mobile phone – when the features are enabled.
And if any sort of monitoring is required – in extreme weather conditions, for example – it should not be considered autonomous and current driving rules should apply.
The transition to the safe introduction of automation with self-driving capabilities is fraught with risk as we enter the early stages of adoption
Matthew Avery, Thatcham Research
‘It is critical that early adopters understand these limitations and their legal obligations,’ Mr Avery warned.
Jim Holder, editorial director at consumer motoring magazine What Car?, said the arrival of an Automated Vehicles Act would be a ‘crucial first step’ in a line of many legal questions autonomous vehicles must navigate and answer in the future.
‘By placing responsibility of the vehicle with manufacturers and software developers when in ‘self-driving’ mode, the legislation will act as a significant incentive for manufacturers to ensure any product they introduce is safe and trustworthy,’ he said.
‘Already, current driver-assistance features on new cars have come under legal scrutiny based on potentially misleading buyers with their capabilities.
‘As manufacturers continue to develop autonomous technology, it’s imperative the legislation keeps up.’
Today’s report will been laid before Parliament and the Scottish Parliament.
It will be for the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments to decide whether to accept the Commissions’ recommendations and introduce legislation to bring them into effect.
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