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UK to move ahead with Automated Vehicles Bill

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The UK government will bring forward an Automated Vehicle Bill over the course of the next parliament, paving the way for use of self-driving vehicles on UK public roads.

The draft legislation was trailed in the King’s speech on Tuesday, and Ben Gardner of Pinsent Masons said that it appears from background briefing notes published by the government that it intends to use proposals developed by the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission as a blueprint for new regulation.

Gardner said: “The foundations of the Bill will be welcome news for industry and potential users of automated vehicle technology – but now the hard work must begin and sufficient government resource must be made available to bring the announcement into reality.”

“UK road traffic laws have developed over centuries and will require significant unpicking to provide for technology which did not exist when they were drafted. The Law Commissions have done much of the heavy lifting here so the government will not have a standing start. Helpfully, there is also a rich ecosystem of businesses already operating in this space in the UK which are ready to educate, inform and shape what these ground breaking future regulations will look like. Hopefully, many more businesses will now see that the UK technology and automotive sectors are open for business, and will follow,” he added.

The Law Commissions’ proposals, developed following a four-year review, envisage distinct regulatory regimes being developed 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.

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, under their plans.

In its briefing paper, the government said road traffic legislation needs to be updated “to ensure the potential benefits of self-driving technologies can become a reality”. Those benefits, it said, include reducing “costs, injuries, and fatalities” arising from accidents on the road, as well as the creation of a potential £42 billion UK market and 38,000 skilled jobs by 2035.

The government said the Bill will “set a rigorous safety framework for self-driving vehicles” and “ensure clear legal liability”.

On safety, it has said the Department for Transport and its agencies will be given new powers to authorise the use of self-driving vehicles. They will also “ensure in-use compliance with the safety standards”. The government added that, under the new legal framework, businesses will have to meet safety requirements “from the point a vehicle is introduced onto our roads or face new sanctions and penalties if they fail in their duty”. Fines, requirements to take corrective action, and suspension of operation are potential sanctions that will be able to be imposed, and “criminal offences will apply in serious cases”, it added.

Other provisions will be drafted to ensure incidents involving self-driving vehicles are investigated and that “lessons are fed back into the safety framework”.

We could find ourselves in a ‘chicken and egg’ situation where the lack of insurance results in companies not putting their vehicles and passenger services on the market and insurers not having the driving data needed to calculate the necessary premiums for offering coverage for accidents in the first place

On liability, the government said it will be “a company rather than an individual” that will be “responsible for the way [a self-driving vehicle] drives”, under the new legislation. The responsibilities of the developers and operators of such vehicles is to be set out in the Bill.

“Once authorised, companies will have ongoing obligations to keep their vehicles safe and ensure that they continue to drive in accordance with British laws,” the government said. “They will be required to report certain safety related data to the authorisation authority and the in-use regulator and to comply with other relevant laws, including data protection and environmental protection legislation.”

The legislation will also provide for people to be immune from prosecution when a self-driving vehicle is driving itself, but people will retain “non-driving responsibilities” – including an obligation to obtain “appropriate insurance for the vehicle”, as well as “proper loading”, and also be responsible for “any part of the journey where [they are] driving”.

Gardner said: “It will be important to see how the insurance industry reacts, as those manufacturers and service providers offering automated vehicles will want to make sure they have suitable coverage – there are no mass market policies currently available for automated vehicles. Without this, we could find ourselves in a ‘chicken and egg’ situation where the lack of insurance results in companies not putting their vehicles and passenger services on the market and insurers not having the driving data needed to calculate the necessary premiums for offering coverage for accidents in the first place.”

“Likewise, edge cases will need to be carefully considered to ensure that there are not situations where liability slips between the manufacturer or services provider and the vehicle owner or service user – such as where the vehicle owner ‘jail breaks’ the self-driving software or fails to download necessary updates. The consequences may be less severe for a mobile phone or games console but, for a vehicle travelling at speed on a public road, the consequences could be fatal,” he said.

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