Legal changes needed for autonomous vehicles in England, Scotland and Wales

26 January 2022

A new report puts carmakers at the forefront of road safety in an autonomous age, not drivers. A person behind the wheel of a fully-autonomous vehicle would instead be defined as a ‘user-in-charge’. In case of a collision the automotive company, not the user, would be held responsible.

This is one of the key recommendations featured in a new report from Law Commissions in England, Scotland and Wales. The publication identifies the need for an ‘Autonomous Vehicles Act’ to regulate the advanced technology, as well as the need to draw a clear distinction between driver-assistance and ‘self-driving’ systems.

‘How should the law deal with self-driving technologies?’ asked David Bartos, Scottish Law Commissioner. ‘Our joint report with the Law Commission sets out new laws for allowing automated vehicles on our roads, ensuring safety and accountability while encouraging innovation and development.’

Making distinctions

The Law Commissions foresee currently-available assistance features developing to the point where a vehicle will effectively be able to drive itself for at least part of the journey. So, the legal bodies want to ensure the technology is introduced safely and responsibly. This clearly defining what an assistance system is, such as adaptive-cruise control, and what constitutes ‘self-driving’, otherwise known by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) as Level 5.

Under the commission’s proposals, when a car is authorised by a regulatory agency as having ‘self-driving’ features, the driver becomes a ‘user-in-charge’ when they deploy them. This would remove responsibility from the individual, meaning the person could not be prosecuted for driving offences such as dangerous driving, speeding, or running a red light. However, the individual  would still retain other duties such as having valid insurance, checking loads, and ensuring children wear seat belts.

Responsibility for the vehicle would instead fall to the authorised self-driving entity (ASDE). So, if a self-driving car behaves in a way that would be considered criminal or unsafe were a human in control, a regulator would work with the ASDE to ensure it did not happen again. Sanctions could also be on the table.

When there is no one in the driver’s seat and no ‘user-in-charge’, occupants would simply be considered passengers. Therefore, a licensed operator would be responsible for overseeing the journey. Additionally, passenger services would need to be accessible, especially for elderly or disabled people.

‘We have an unprecedented opportunity to promote public acceptance of automated vehicles with our recommendations on safety assurance and clarify legal liability,’ said Nicholas Paines QC, public law commissioner. We can also make sure accessibility, especially for older and disabled people, is prioritised from the outset.’

Safer, easier, and greener

The commission’s recommendations also extended to marketing. The idea is to safeguard against consumer misunderstanding that driver-assistance systems are the same as fully-autonomous technology. Should this be the case, a driver might not realise the need to still pay attention to the road when using an assistance system. In December last year, the UK Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) set out five marketing principles to the same end.

Insurer-funded automotive research centre, Thatcham Research, participated in the report’s consultation stage. Its chief research strategy officer, Matthew Avery, pointed to the publication as a significant step that provides important legal recommendations, as well as clarity around safety.

‘In the next 12 months, we are likely to see the first iterations of self-driving features on cars on UK roads. It is significant that the Law Commission report highlights drivers’ legal obligations and they 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,’ he said.

Decisions to be made

Now the report has been handed over to relevant parliaments, governments will need to decide whether to accept the recommendations and introduce the corresponding legislation. Transport Minister Trudy Harrison explained her department funded the independent report.

‘The development of self-driving vehicles in the UK has the potential to revolutionise travel, making every-day journeys safer, easier and greener,’ said Harrison. ‘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.’

These new recommendations build on the reforms introduced by the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018. It defines self-driving as ‘operating in a mode in which it is not being controlled, and does not need to be monitored, by an individual.’ This piece of legislation ensures that anyone who suffers injury or damage from an autonomous vehicle does not needs to prove if anyone was at fault, instead, the insurer compensates the victim directly.