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'Urgent' changes in the law necessary before driverless cars can go mainstream, survey finds

Out-Law News | 14 Jul 2016 | 10:44 am | 3 min. read

The UK government needs to act "urgently" to change legislation and enable the testing and mainstream use of driverless cars, according to a survey of industry.

The research, carried out by Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, at a recent 'Future of the Car' event run by the Financial Times, found that nearly 80% of respondents believe the UK government needs to change current laws either urgently or very urgently to facilitate driverless cars testing and use.

In support of this view, respondents to the survey identified the government and law makers as those who "will play the most important role in the development of driverless cars". Nearly 50% of the respondents said either established technology companies and new entrants to the market would play the most important role, with 20% identifying the role of car manufacturers as most important.

The survey recorded the views of a broad range of people interested in driverless cars, including those working for car manufacturers, technology and component suppliers, as well as others in the media or involved in consultancy or professional services.

The results of the survey come after the UK government said it plans a "rolling programme of regulatory reform" to support the adoption of autonomous vehicles earlier this week. It has identified changes to motor insurance and road traffic laws as among its initial priorities which are outlined in a recent consultation published by the government's Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (C-CAV).

"An indication of what a future regulatory framework might look like, will help testers and developers to ensure that their driverless vehicle technology is 'legal by design'," expert in autonomous vehicles technology and regulation Ben Gardner of Pinsent Masons said.

"With such development and testing being at an early stage, allowing organisations to better understand the current and future legal issues and obstacles will help them to start designing legally compliant vehicles and systems now, instead of potentially having to reverse engineer them at a later date," he said. 

"Importantly for organisations operating in this space, the opportunity to influence what future driverless vehicle regulations might look like," Gardner said. "Those in the process of, or who have an interest in, developing, testing and commercialising driver assistance and automated vehicle technologies should carefully consider the proposals set out in the consultation and how they interact with any potential products or services,"

In its survey Pinsent Masons asked participants to list what they think the "key obstacle" to the mainstream use of driverless cars is. Almost a third of respondents said the fact that existing legislation is not compatible to driverless cars was the biggest obstacle to be overcome.

Other respondents highlighted issues such as a lack of sufficiently advanced technology, social acceptance of driverless cars, a lack of infrastructure and data and privacy issues as the main challenges to be addressed.

An earlier report published by Pinsent Masons in April identified outdated road traffic laws, complexities in patent licensing and restrictive data privacy rules as among the obstacles to the testing and adoption of driverless and connected vehicles.

According to its latest survey, 38% of respondents believe that car manufacturers should be liable if a driverless car is involved in an accident. More than 25% of respondents said responsibility should lie with insurers or a compensation fund, and less than 20% said liability should rest with car owners or occupants.

In its latest consultation the government said that it does not intend to introduce a strict liability regime to account for the rise of autonomous vehicles. It said "a fault based approach combined with existing product liability law … is the best approach for our legal system" and that "the existing common law on negligence should largely be able to adapt to this new technology".

However, it said "new rights of action directly against an insurer" could be created to "protect third parties and enable the product liability insurance proposals to function properly". The new rights of action would help plug potential gaps that could arise if "a claim in negligence against the driver who purchased that insurance policy" could not be brought, the Department for Transport said.

Pinsent Masons also said that 40% of respondents had confirmed that their organisation is looking to "monetise the data it obtains from connected and driverless cars for purposes other than the ones that power connectivity features the customer has purchased together with the car or has asked for or subscribed to". More than a quarter of respondents said their companies are not looking to monetise data in that way, it said.