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Regulate automated vehicles in Britain, say government legal advisers

Out-Law News | 26 Jan 2022 | 12:48 pm | 3 min. read

Manufacturers or developers of autonomous vehicles could face regulatory fines if things go wrong when their vehicles are in self-driving mode and in use on public roads in Britain in future, according to new proposals for legislative reform.

The proposals, developed by the Law Commission for England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission, envisage the introduction of new legislation – a new Automated Vehicles Act – to regulate automated vehicles on roads or other public places in Britain.

The proposals have been set out at the end of an extensive review the bodies have been engaged in since 2018, which involved three separate consultation exercises and looked at the changes to UK law and regulation required to facilitate the use of autonomous vehicles in the UK.

Gardner Ben

Ben Gardner

Senior Associate

It is hoped that the outputs of the Law Commissions’ reports will provide the foundations for a future regulatory system within the UK which is able to navigate the fine line of protecting road users while encouraging innovation

“The latest report is the culmination of three years of in-depth analysis of the UK’s regulatory landscape, which includes the views and recommendations from many stakeholders forming a part of the future of mobility ecosystem,” said Ben Gardner of Pinsent Masons.

“It is hoped that the outputs of the Law Commissions’ reports will provide the foundations for a future regulatory system within the UK which is able to navigate the fine line of protecting road users while encouraging innovation. This will require the removal or amendment of existing laws and the creation of new ones – which will collectively remove obstacles, clarify ambiguities, and fill gaps in current legal frameworks. This is especially important as we begin to see increasingly advanced driving features being incorporated into new vehicle models, as well as the roll out of last mile passenger and delivery services in UK towns and cities,” he said.

Under their proposals, distinct 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 – would be developed. The law would also distinguish between vehicle features that merely aid drivers, such as adaptive cruise control, and those that deliver self-driving. Self-driving vehicles would be subject to a new authorisation scheme before they could be used in Britain.

Manufacturers or developers would need to make the safety case for the use of the self-driving vehicles, and regulators would need to be assured that it “has obtained approval (through one of the GB whole vehicle approval schemes); can drive itself safely and legally even if an individual is not monitoring the driving environment, the vehicle or the way it drives; can record location data for detected collision events and [automated driving system] activation/ deactivation; and is supported by a suitable [authorised self-driving entity] which has demonstrated its ability to comply with relevant laws (including laws on data protection and environmental protection)”, according to the plans.

It would be a criminal offence for manufacturers or developers of vehicles featuring driver aids to claim that they enable self-driving on public roads when their vehicles have not been authorised for self-driving.

Regulators for in-use self-driving vehicles would have widespread information-gathering and investigatory powers and be able to impose civil sanctions, including fines, the suspension of authorisation and even to recommend the withdrawal of authorisation.

The Law Commissions’ proposals would also mean changes to the existing liability regime. ‘Users-in-charge’ would be immune from liability for certain motoring offences committed while the vehicle is in self-drive mode, such as speeding or going through a red-light, though it would remain their responsibility to obtain insurance, report accidents and pay parking charges, among other things. An insurance-backed scheme for compensating victims of accidents involving autonomous vehicles is already provided for in the UK’s Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018.

The creation of new safety standards is envisaged by the bodies, as are new responsibilities for regulators around ensuring cybersecurity.

The Law Commissions have also urged the government to act on a recommendation made by Pinsent Masons designed to ensure ‘no user-in-charge’ self-driving vehicles designed to deliver passenger services conform to accessibility standards.

Pinsent Masons’ Gardner said: “The future of mobility could form an important part of the UK’s economic recovery from the pandemic. Connectivity, autonomy and electrification present the opportunity to move the UK up the value chain – creating highly skilled and well-paid jobs while creating a renaissance for our already established manufacturing industry.”

“A clear, considered and progressive regulatory environment could enable the UK’s mobility market to flourish.  Now that we have a detailed blueprint for regulation from the Law Commissions, the ball is very much in the government’s court,” he said.