Law Commissions publish report on safe use of driverless cars
The Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission (the Law Commissions) have released their joint report, making recommendations for the safe and responsible use of self-driving vehicles.
The report recommends introducing a new Automated Vehicles Act, to regulate driverless cars. It recommends drawing a clear distinction between features which just assist drivers, such as adaptive cruise control, and those that are self-driving.
Under the Law Commissions’ proposals, when a car is authorised by a regulatory agency as having “self-driving features” and those features are in-use, the person in the driving seat would no longer be responsible for how the car drives. Instead, the company or body that obtained the authorisation (an Authorised Self-Driving Entity) would face regulatory sanctions if anything goes wrong.
Many driver assistance features are currently available to help a human driver. The report anticipates that, in future, these features will develop to a point where an automated vehicle will be able to drive itself for at least part of a journey, without a human paying attention to the road. For example, a car may be able to drive itself on a motorway, or a shuttle bus may be able to navigate a particular route.
A new system of legal accountability
Once a vehicle is authorised by a regulatory agency as having self-driving features, and a self-driving feature is engaged, the Law Commissions recommend a new system of legal accountability. Under it:
- The person in the driving seat would no longer be a driver but a “user-in-charge”. A user-in-charge cannot be prosecuted for offences which arise directly from the driving task. They would have immunity from a wide range of offences – from dangerous driving to exceeding the speed limit or running a red light. However, the user-in-charge would retain other driver duties, such as carrying insurance, checking loads or ensuring that children wear seat belts.
- The Authorised Self-Driving Entity (or ASDE) that had the vehicle authorised would have responsibility for it: if the vehicle drives in a way which would be criminal or unsafe if performed by a human driver, an in-use regulator would work with the ASDE to ensure that the matter does not recur. Regulatory sanctions would also be available to the regulator.
- Some vehicles may be authorised to drive themselves without anyone in the driver seat. Here any occupants of the vehicle would simply be passengers. Instead of having a user-in-charge, a licensed operator would be responsible for overseeing the journey. There would also be requirements for passenger services to be accessible, especially to older and disabled people.
The Law Commissions’ recommendations build on the reforms introduced by the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018. The 2018 Act ensured that victims who suffer injury or damage from a vehicle that was driving itself will not need to prove that anyone was at fault. Instead, the insurer will compensate the victim directly.
The Law Commissions recommend new safeguards to stop driver assistance features from being marketed as self-driving. This would help to minimise the risk of collisions caused by members of the public thinking that they do not need to pay attention to the road while a driver assistance feature is in operation.
For many years there have been concerns about the safety of driverless cars.
In 2018, SHP posed the question – who is to blame when someone is struck by a self-driving car? After a woman died after being hit by a self-driving Uber in Arizona.
Also, in April 2021, two men were killed after a Tesla car, believed to be driving autonomously, crashed into a tree and caught fire in Texas.
The report has been laid before Parliament and the Scottish Parliament. It will be for the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments to decide whether to accept the Commissions’ recommendations and introduce legislation to bring them into effect.
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