Out-Law News 3 min. read

Highway Code reforms one piece of self-driving vehicles law jigsaw

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Planned updates to the Highway Code represent natural progress towards the widespread adoption of self-driving vehicles in the UK but reflect only part of the legal, regulatory, and cultural changes needed to support their use, an expert has said.

Sean Elson of Pinsent Masons was commenting after the UK government set out a draft amendment to the Highway Code that would facilitate the use of self-driving vehicles on public roads in the UK.

Elson Sean

Sean Elson


We expect large, self-contained commercial sites, transport hubs and the haulage and logistics industries to embrace self-driving vehicles before they come into widespread use

The government acknowledged that “extensive reform” is required to support the use of self-driving vehicles in the UK and described its proposed amendments to The Highway Code as a necessary “interim measure to support the safe use of the first self-driving vehicles on UK roads”.

One major amendment planned would make it lawful for motorists to divert their attention away from the road to “view content through the vehicle’s built-in infotainment apparatus” under certain circumstances.

The draft amendments make it clear that that new right would only apply “in a valid situation”. It would be motorists’ responsibility to “follow the manufacturer’s instructions about when and how to use the self-driving function safely”, and they would remain responsible for being fit to drive, ensuring their vehicle is “road legal”, and for illegal activity while driving – which will continue to include using hand-held mobile phones, subject to existing limited exceptions.

In addition, motorists would have to “always be able and ready to take control and do it when the vehicle prompts you” – this means, for example, remaining in the driver seat and remaining awake, according to the government’s proposals.

The government said the proposed changes are designed to “clearly articulate the expectations for users of vehicles with automated, or self-driving, capability”.

The proposed reforms envisage, and would only apply to, vehicles that are truly self-driving – not the type of vehicles that are becoming increasingly common where driver aids, such as cruise control, remote control parking and lane-keeping assistance technology, are operating. The Highway Code already requires motorists to “have full control over these systems at all times” and “exercise proper control of your vehicle at all times” when they are in use. 

Elson said: “The plans to update the Highway Code are just the latest step in the journey towards the adoption of self-driving vehicles in the UK and reflect a broader direction of travel that has been pursued for several years by policymakers in the country and elsewhere globally.”

“The government is currently considering recommendations made by the Law Commission for England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission which envisage distinct new regulatory regimes for self-driving vehicles where someone would sit in the driving seat and be able to take manual control over the vehicle – a so-called ‘user-in-charge’ – and for ‘no user-in-charge’ vehicles where journeys could be completed without on-board human intervention, and further propose that a distinction is made in law between autonomous vehicle features that merely aid drivers and those that deliver self-driving,” he said.

“The Law Commissions’ recommendations were the product of a three-year review and build on steps already taken to facilitate the use of autonomous vehicles on UK roads – which include a code of practice for testing, various pilot initiatives, and provision for an insurance-backed scheme for compensating victims of accidents involving autonomous vehicles under the UK’s Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018,” he said.

“Further changes in law are required to iron-out issues of liability when vehicles are in self-driving mode. The Law Commissions’ have proposed that ‘users-in-charge’ be immune from liability for certain motoring offences but given the importance of technology to the smooth operation of self-driving vehicles, it may be that the government will legislate in a way that will limit business’ liability for accidents – such as if motorists fail to apply software patches when prompted,” he said.

“Another barrier to the adoption of self-driving vehicles is cultural. Some examples of self-driving modes of transport are already in operation, such as the monorail at Birmingham airport, but while extensive testing of self-driving vehicles has been ongoing for years in a bid to demonstrate its safety, there is more work to do to build public trust. Reforms to the legislative and regulatory environment are vital in this regard as it will provide certainty to businesses that are exploring new technologies and help set expectations of motorists. Early adopters will also improve understanding and acceptance of the technology – we expect large, self-contained commercial sites, transport hubs and the haulage and logistics industries to embrace self-driving vehicles before they come into widespread use,” Elson said.

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