Out-Law News 2 min. read

British industry must engage as self-driving car law is passed

Businesses across the automated vehicle sector must actively engage with the Department for Transport through forthcoming formal consultations and informal discussion as the Automated Vehicles Act 2024 becomes law, an expert has said. 

The Act received royal assent on 20 May paving the way for self-driving vehicles to be on British roads in as little as two years. 

The Act delivers the most comprehensive legal framework of its kind worldwide said David Thorneloe, an expert in public law and government at Pinsent Masons. This includes the establishment of a rigorous safety framework, ensuring clear legal liability, and a clamp down on misleading marketing regarding automated vehicles. 

“The Act sets out a clear framework, but a great deal of the detail on new industry standards is left to be set out in regulations over the next two or three years,” he said. “Most of this will fall to the next government that takes office after the general election in late 2024. It will be important for industry to engage in the government’s consultations and other discussions as the government seeks to set  the detail of regulations.”

The Act empowers the Department for Transport (DfT) to create an authorisation regime for “autonomous features” to be used in vehicles on British roads. An “autonomous” feature is one that is being controlled not by an individual but by equipment of the vehicle where neither the vehicle nor its surroundings are being monitored by a person. 

The DfT is also given wide powers to establish an authorisation regime for vehicles that satisfy the “self-driving test”.

“This test is a new concept introduced by the Act which delivers on the objective to keep road safety at the heart of the legislation,” said Leo Parkington, automotive law expert at Pinsent Masons. 

An automated vehicle must be capable of driving “legally”, with an acceptably low risk of committing a traffic infraction, and to a level of safety equivalent to, or higher than, that of careful and competent human drivers. This standard is required in addition to meeting the statement of safety principles to be established in due course by the DfT.

The DfT is also afforded the power to require information and investigate firms failing to comply with these safety requirements. The Department can appoint statutory inspectors to investigate incidents with the vehicle approval system to be supported by a completely independent incident investigation function. 

Criminal liability is established by the Act, meaning that while their vehicle is in self-driving mode, drivers will not be held responsible for how the vehicle drives. For the first time, corporations such as insurance providers, software developers and automotive manufacturers can assume this responsibility. 

The legislation introduces the concepts of “user-in-charge” and “no-user-in-charge”. For a user-in-charge journey, the question to establish liability is whether the person “in charge” is in control. The legislation also establishes requirements regarding transition demands which require the vehicle to clearly communicate when the user-in-charge should assume control of the vehicle. 

If a vehicle was in control at the time of the accident, the user in charge is exempt from criminal liability and instead the liability sits with the “authorised self-driving entity” – the entity designated as responsible for any criminal sanctions.

Marketing restrictions have been introduced by the Act, making it an offence to use restricted works or communications likely to cause confusion as to legality of automated vehicles on British roads. These restrictions may apply to specific works, expressions, symbols, or marks. However, regulations detailing these restrictions have not yet been developed. 

Parkington said: “This is a landmark piece of legislation that paves the way for automated vehicles to hit British roads from as early as 2026. It is essential that companies seeking to achieve success in the AV market in Great Britain ensure that solutions meet the requirements of this Act and any forthcoming secondary legislation.”

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