Reinventing the wheel? Automated Vehicles (AV) bill introduced into parliament
The Automated Vehicles Bill (the AV Bill) implements the recommendations of the four-year review of regulation for automated vehicles carried out jointly by the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission. It is intended to set the legal framework for the safe deployment of self-driving vehicles in Great Britain.
The AV Bill, which was introduced by the King’s Speech on 7 November 2023, has at the time of writing had its first reading in the House of Lords and is awaiting its second.
What is an Automated Vehicle?
An AV is a self-driving car which takes full responsibility for transporting you from A to B. Conceptually it is fundamentally different from even, say, the whizziest current Mercedes S-Class with its active cruise control, lane assist, parking sensors and so on. Those are all ‘driver aids’. An AV, when in self-driving mode, will not have a ‘driver’ – all occupants will be passengers or ‘users’. The AV Bill introduces strict rules around the marketing of AVs, so that only true driverless cars are permitted to be marketed as such.
Is the UK ready for AVs?
I know what you’re thinking – our road network is not ready for this, even if the technology is there to create the cars. How are these AVs going to cope with potholes, one-way systems, bus lanes, traffic lights, cyclists, not to mention other people’s terrible driving? And you have a point. Just as the national EV charging infrastructure is currently having to play catch-up with the popularity of electric cars, our roads will need to be adapted, upgraded and re-thought to accommodate the AV.
However, self-driving cars are coming, eventually, and a robust legal framework is a key initial step to ensuring that the potential economic and safety advantages can be realised.
What are the economic and safety advantages of AVs compared to normal cars?
Let’s take these in reverse order. In most cases human beings cause car accidents, rather than the cars themselves. According to a government briefing document, 88% of all road traffic accidents in the UK in 2021 involved human error as a contributory factor. Allow the car to drive itself, so the theory goes, and you take human error out of the equation altogether.
Economically the AV sector has great potential. The government is claiming that by 2035 the UK market could be worth £41.7 billion, capturing 6.4% of a global market of £650 billion, and employing 87,000 people in the UK. Even allowing for a significant margin for error, these figures indicate that the AV sector could be extremely lucrative. Indeed, the government has already put some money where its mouth is, investing £200 million in 80 AV projects back in 2015-16, as well as a further £66 million in 2022, directed at the development of prototype passenger and logistics services.
Who is responsible if my AV is involved in an accident?
Here is where the AV Bill gets interesting. If your AV is in self-driving mode and causes an accident, the manufacturer, rather than the owner or occupant, will be liable: the government has promised immunity from prosecution for users of the vehicles.
At first blush this may appear to be a radical step, and perhaps alarming for manufacturers who may not fancy taking on liability for the unpredictable activities of their customers. But on reflection how could things be any other way? If the occupants are liable in the event of an accident, they would never be able to relax and take advantage of the technology by using the car’s self-driving mode unmonitored. Which in turn means they would be less likely to buy one in the first place. And if nobody is buying them, the manufacturers will not see a return on their investment. Therefore, making the manufacturer liable probably suits all concerned the best.
What other legal issues could arise?
Insurance could be a tricky area. As manufacturers will be required to provide certain safety-related data to the government’s Authorising Authority (ie the body which has authorised the AV for use on UK roads based on a Statement of Safety Principles to be issued by the Secretary of State) and the in-use regulator, it is easy to imagine insurers wanting access to similar data in order to determine and apportion liability in the event of an accident.
It is also notable that the immunity from prosecution does not apply in circumstances where the vehicle attempts to hand back control to the user and the user fails to take back control during a designated ‘transition period’ (the ‘user in charge’ of an AV needs to remain in a fit state to drive, unless the vehicle has an authorised ‘no user in charge’ feature).
Reinventing the wheel?
At present, there are concepts referred to in the AV Bill which are wholly unfamiliar to a car driver in 2023. However, once the AV Bill passes into law, we can expect to see a new motoring culture around self-driving cars emerge, giving us just a few years to get used to the idea of an automated, automotive revolution.
Watch this space for further commentary on the Bill during its Parliamentary passage.
To discuss any of the issues mentioned in this article, please reach out to Toby Richards-Carpenter.