Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Vehicle manufacturers and other businesses seeking to trial the use of automated vehicles on UK public roads should publicly set out a summary of the 'safety case' they have developed for their trials, according to new government guidelines.

The new code of practice on automated vehicle trialling (28-page / 685KB PDF) replaces a previous code for testing driverless cars in the UK created in 2015. The government's expectation on publication of safety cases is one of the main changes made to the previous code.

The new code has clarified that those hoping to run tests of automated vehicles should develop a "detailed safety case" before conducting trials that "demonstrates that the trial activity can be conducted … [in] the absence of unreasonable risk".

The safety case should contain a variety of information pertinent to the proposed trials, including details of the "specific trial activity", the vehicles involved and the "operational domain" of the testing. In addition, evidence that the trial can be "performed safely" and of the engagement there has been with authorities over the planned activities, such as the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) and highways agencies, is also expected. Trialling organisations should also detail the processes and responsibilities around the management of the trial, and explain how the trial "aligns with legislation and regulations", according to the new code.

The government recommended that those behind trials "make an abridged, public version" of the safety case they develop "freely available".

New expectations regarding the type of data that vehicles involved in testing should record has also been set out in the new code.

Data recorders should capture information including the software and hardware involved in the testing, whether the vehicle is operating in manual or automated mode, its speed and location, the proximity of other vehicles or objects, and a raft of other details pertinent to the vehicle's acceleration, movement and operation, and its connectivity to networks, the government has recommended.

Those running trials are expected to give police investigators and other relevant authorities "readily and immediately access" to "intelligible" data in the event of incidents, or otherwise "fully support investigators as part of any requests for access".

Expert in driverless cars laws Ben Gardner of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "This is another positive step by the government for those wishing to develop and test connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) technologies in the UK. The government has underlined that there is no need for permits or surety bonds as is the case in other jurisdictions."

"It is paramount that safety is the cornerstone of any tests which are to take place as incidents could impact on overall public perception and derail the success of CAVs before they have even come to market," he said.

Gardner said that, like the previous code of practice, the updated code is not legally binding.  However, he said the failure to comply "could be an indicator of negligent behaviour and be ultimately taken into consideration by the courts or other regulatory bodies"

He said those proposing to undertake trials should also "familiarise themselves with existing road traffic and other relevant laws in advance of deploying CAVs on to public roads".

"Those testing should be minded to ensure that full, proper and transparent testing procedures are in place, together with carefully considered risk mitigation strategies to ensure that trials are conducted safely," Gardner said.

In its consultation paper, the government said: "Improving engagement between those carrying out [automated vehicle] trials and relevant authorities and the public is a priority for the update. Trialling organisations and now expected to inform, educate, and update the relevant authorities, emergency services, and anyone who might be affected by trial activity. The code attempts to facilitate such engagement by providing relevant contact details but is clear that the trialling organisation has responsibility for making sure sufficient engagement takes place."

The updated code is open to comment until 6 May.

Alongside the release of the new code, the government also confirmed that "a process is being developed to support the advanced trials of automated vehicles". Such trials will only be possible if "rigorous safety assessments" have been passed, it said.

The government's stated aim is to have fully self-driving vehicles on UK roads by 2021.

Richard Harrington, automotive minister, said: "We need to ensure we take the public with us as we move towards having self-driving cars on our roads by 2021. The update to the code of practice will provide clearer guidance to those looking to carry out trials on public roads."

The Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission are engaged in a three-year long review into the laws and regulations needed to support the introduction of autonomous vehicles in the UK. Last November, the Commissions opened their first consultation as part of that review and posed questions on a wide-range of legal issues.

The UK has already legislated in the area of civil liability for when things go wrong with the way autonomous vehicles operate with the Automated and Electric Vehicle Act.

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