Letters show that connected and autonomous vehicles issues are moving up the political agenda, says expert

Out-Law News | 11 Sep 2015 | 10:50 am | 2 min. read

The publication of the letters exchanged between the Council for Science and Technology (CST) and UK prime minister David Cameron "demonstrates that the issue of connected and autonomous vehicles is rapidly moving up the political agenda", an expert has said.

In its July letter (4-page / 77KB PDF) to Cameron, the CST made five recommendations for "capturing value in the autonomous and connected vehicles industry" within the UK.

In response, Cameron said (2-page / 450KB PDF) he had asked the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (C-CAV) to "integrate" the recommendations into "their thinking". C-CAV is the joint policy unit set up by the Department for Transport and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to help support the development of the connected and autonomous vehicles industry in the UK.

Ben Gardner, expert in autonomous vehicles technology and regulation at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "As it stands the UK is well positioned to derive substantial economic benefits from the forthcoming development, testing and commercialisation of connected and autonomous vehicle technology. However, the value and longevity of such benefits will be heavily dependent on the work which is to be undertaken by C-CAV over the coming months and years."

"C-CAV will need to effectively engage and collaborate with a wide range of stakeholders from industry to public bodies to safety groups to ensure that an appropriate infrastructure and regulatory framework is put in place. C-CAV must be minded to balance the competing interests of such stakeholders whilst delivering a regulatory framework, testing environment and related infrastructure that ensures that the UK can attract and retain global businesses which specialise in connected and autonomous vehicles," he said.

The UK government earlier this year issued a streamlined code of practice for testing 'driverless' vehicles on public roads. The code addresses a number of issues relevant to the testing of driverless vehicles - from vehicle and test driver requirements, to insurance, data protection and cyber security issues.

In his analysis of the code published earlier this year, Gardner said that the framework broadly provides for the testing of driverless cars in the UK now, provided a test driver is present and takes responsibility for the safe operation of the vehicle; and the vehicle can be used compatibly with road traffic law.

Gardner has, though, highlighted the "pre-existing legal barriers" to the testing and commercialisation of intelligent mobility technologies in the UK which concern other autonomous vehicles.

In its letter to Cameron, the CST also identified the need to improve the UK's legal framework relating to testing and use of autonomous and connected vehicles. The government has said it will review UK regulations by summer 2017.

"The government should prioritise its review of domestic legislation to accommodate autonomous vehicles," the CST said. The review should "consider the difficult questions around civil and criminal liability", it said.

The CST also said that the government should "identify areas where it can usefully develop standards for key parts of the operating systems for autonomous and connected vehicles".

"The government needs to prioritise technologies which meet two criteria: they are fundamental to the sector’s future development, and there is a realistic likelihood that the UK might own the relevant property rights," it said. "Satellite communications and laser guidance systems are two possible examples. Developing a robust and early set of draft standards will allow the UK to help shape the market and cement its role within it. Embedding globally-filed UK patents within a standard will allow the UK to maintain some control over future versions. Even if the platform eventually becomes an open standard, some economic advantage would remain."

Among its other recommendations, the CST called on the government to "work with business to create the world's first 'real-world lab'" for testing autonomous and connected vehicles within "a busy UK town".

The government is already helping to fund the testing of driverless cars on public roads in Greenwich, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry. The CST said those projects "could be a useful first phase" towards implementation of the 'real-world lab' recommendation but that the UK "should not just be a playground to test autonomous and connected vehicles without retaining any of the value".

"The UK should act quickly while it retains an international advantage in its regulatory and infrastructure environment," the CST said. "The US, Singapore, Germany and Sweden are working to overtake us."