In anticipation of the first self-driving vehicles being rolled out, the government has introduced the Automated Vehicles Bill which will deliver a legal framework for self-driving vehicles with the stated purpose of making safety of paramount importance. The introduction of this Bill signifies the UK’s intention to be a leader in this industry and to enable the future implementation of the technology on UK roads.
A self-driving vehicle for these purposes is a vehicle ‘designed with the intention that a feature of the vehicle will allow it to travel autonomously’, and the vehicle must be capable of doing so ‘safely and legally’.
The legislation focuses particularly on issues relating to safety, liability and marketing.
The belief is that self-driving vehicles could help reduce deaths and injuries from drink driving, speeding and driver tiredness, with 88% of road collisions having human error as a contributory factor. The Institute for Engineering and Technology suggests that for every 10,000 errors made by a human, a self-driving vehicle will make just one. So, taking people out of the equation could lead to a vast reduction in injuries and fatalities, while also lowering the associated legal and repair costs.
However, self-driving vehicles themselves raise many safety concerns, and before these vehicles are allowed on our roads, they will have to meet or exceed rigorous new safety requirements and thresholds, set out in the Bill.
Self-driving vehicles will need to be authorised and will be subject to detailed technical assessment and approval for the purposes of safety and cyber-security. The Bill introduces measures to enable the Department of Transport and its agencies (under whose auspices the legislation will be administered) to enforce standards and hold companies to account. Following vehicle authorisation, there will be on-going requirements to keep the vehicle safe and requirements to report safety related data and incidents involving self-driving vehicles.
The Bill will also make information about traffic regulation orders available digitally and in a common format for use in self-driving vehicles and other systems that facilitate driving vehicles on a road. The data, which includes speed limits, road closures and restrictions, location and times of use of bus lanes and parking bays can then be used to create a digital map to support the safe operation of self-driving vehicles.
The effectiveness of this remains to be seen, particularly when considering the state of many UK roads, adverse weather conditions and the need for emergency traffic management resulting from accidents, road works etc. Drivers are required to adapt to the road, slowing down and speeding up at different times despite their being a set speed limit. It remains to be seen how effective self-driving cars would be in circumstances such as these.
A key issue is liability for the vehicle whilst it is in the self-driving mode. The Bill provides that every authorised self-driving vehicle will have a corresponding authorised self-driving entity (usually the manufacturers) who will be responsible for how their self-driving vehicles behave on the road thereby protecting users from being unfairly held accountable.
Because the individual is not in control and does not have responsibility for how the vehicle behaves, the liability must fall on whoever has designed the self-driving features. They are ultimately responsible for how the vehicle operates on the roads and so are responsible for if it causes any accidents or traffic violations. Individuals will be far less inclined to utilise self-driving vehicles if they face being held liable for how the vehicle operates when in self-driving mode. Consequently, without the party responsible for the technology being held liable it is unlikely that self-driving vehicles would be a success and the industry would likely stall.
Whilst individuals will be immune from prosecution when a self-driving vehicle is driving itself, they will retain “non-driving” responsibilities such as the obligation to obtain appropriate insurance and responsibility for any parking offences.
A further aim of the Bill is to provide transparency as to exactly what constitutes a self-driving vehicle. Currently, many cars have automated features that aid drivers such as cruise control and technology to keep drivers within road markings, which are clearly different from a fully self-driving car that requires no input from the individual within.
The Bill protects consumers by ensuring that only vehicles that meet rigorous self-driving standards can be marketed as such, prohibiting misleading market practice, including using ambiguous terminology in advertising material as to whether vehicles classify as self-driving.
There will be specific terminology and symbols reserved for marketing authorised self-driving vehicles providing clarity to consumers and enabling them to differentiate between different levels of autonomous driving technologies and be aware of what they are using.
The Bill gives the government power to impose fines, require corrective action and to suspend the operation of authorised self-driving entities. It also creates a number of new criminal offences in relation to serious cases of non-compliance.
The Bill is currently at the committee stage in the House of Lords so still has to finish its journey through the House of Lords and it will then need to make its way through the House of Commons. During this process it will be scrutinised in detail and is likely to be subject to various amendments. The implementation of the final legislation may be some way off and will be dependent on the mercies of the parliamentary timetable.
If you have any questions regarding the Automated Vehicles Bill, please contact a member of the Commercial team here.
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