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Law Commission releases new report on legal framework for Automated Vehicles

Yesterday, the Law Commission has published its recommendations for a new legal framework to govern the introduction and continuing safety of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) on roads in Great Britain.  

Their much-awaited report is hoped to lay the foundations for the primary legislation needed for the commercial deployment of Level 4 AVs on public roads.

Following three rounds of consultation, the Commission has recommended that human drivers should not be made to be legally accountable for road safety, with liability instead resting with the company providing the AV systems such as the car’s manufacturer or software companies. These provisions only apply to vehicles defined as fully “self-driving” and the Law Commission argues that carmakers should be extremely clear about the difference between self-driving and “driver-assisted” features.

As such, a new regime has been recommended for defining whether a vehicle qualifies as self-driving and there should be no sliding scale of driverless capabilities – a vehicle is either autonomous or it is not.

Establishing a clear legal framework is seen as one of the largest barriers to largescale adoption and, if the recommendations are accepted by the government, this report could be major step towards seeing AVs on the UK’s roads.

Preserving flexibility is key to fostering innovation

This is the first time the Law Commission has been asked to develop legal reforms in anticipation for future technological development.

However, with many uncertainties remaining over how AVs will develop and fears that premature regulation could threaten continued innovation and investment, maintaining flexibility in the recommendations has been identified as a key caveat.

Crossing the threshold

A central issue that Law Commission has addressed is the stage at which we cross the threshold from driver assisted vehicles into self-driving vehicles.

While in technical terms a very good driver assistance feature may look similar to self-driving, in legal terms, the difference is profound. This is because once we start to divert our attention away from driving, we cannot be legally held accountable for failing to notice problems. As such, the law requires a very clear-cut definition for setting out when the user is no longer responsible for driving.

Under the recommendations, once a vehicle is authorised as self-driving, with a self-driving feature engaged, the system of legal accountability will change.

The person inside the vehicle becomes a “user-in-charge” rather than a “driver” and cannot be prosecuted for road safety offenses. They will have immunity from a wide range of offenses ranging from dangerous driving, to speeding and running red lights.

Therefore, the threshold for self-driving must be set high. The Law Commission recommends a rigorous legal test for a vehicle to be authorised as self-driving and must be safe, even if a human user is not monitoring the environment, the vehicle or the way it drives.

Being a user-in-charge

Although ‘users-in-charge’ are recommended to enjoy protection from the law, the Law Commission also dictates that activities such as using a mobile phone or sleeping would be an offence.  

Clamping down on misrepresentation

Such is the strength of feeling towards the need for clarity in the AV market, the Law Commission has recommended that any attempt to mislead consumers over what constitutes self-driving should be a criminal offence.

The use of terms to describe vehicles as self-driving which are not authorised as AV under the proposed authorisation scheme or are not designed for use on roads and public places would become a criminal offence. Similarly, any terminology used to confuse drivers that an authorised vehicle does not need to be monitored would be illegal.

techUK is pleased to have supported the Law Commission in gathering responses to its consultations and fed-in to its findings. We hope to see the government constructively engage with the report’s recommendations, but it is worth noting that legislation will not be created overnight. Self-driving technology is still nascent in the UK and has opted for a slower and more cautious policy development process when compared with some EU member states.

We hope to see the UK take a progressive stance with a clear timeline for adoption. Through adopting a regulatory and legal framework for AVs, we have an opportunity to lead the world when it comes to developing consumer acceptance for these advanced technologies.

In November 2021, techUK published a position paper on the opportunities available to the UK to design AV regulation in a way that delivers societal and economic benefit which is available to download from our website.

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