Law Commissions publish results of automated vehicles project

January 28, 2022

The Law Commission and Scottish Law Commission have published the final report in their automated vehicles project with recommendations for legal reform.

The Commissions’ work began in 2018 after a request from the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) to review the laws to enable the safe and responsible introduction of automated vehicles on roads and public places in Great Britain. “Automated vehicles” mean vehicles that are capable of driving themselves without being controlled or monitored by an individual for at least part of a journey.

The project has involved three consultations, the first on safety assurance and legal liability; the second considered highly automated road passenger services (HARPS), looking at how automated vehicles could be used to improve public transport.

The third consultation drew on responses to both previous papers to formulate overarching proposals on the way forward.

Key recommendations

The Commissions say that their aim for this project has been to keep safety at the forefront of their proposals, while also retaining the flexibility required to accommodate future development.

In summary, the Commissions’ recommendations cover initial approval and authorisation of self-driving vehicles, ongoing monitoring of their performance while they are on the road, misleading marketing, and both criminal and civil liability. They include:

  • Writing the test for self-driving into law, with a clear line distinguishing it from driver support features, a transparent process for setting a safety standard, and new offences to prevent misleading marketing.
  • A two-stage approval and authorisation process building on current international and domestic technical vehicle approval schemes and adding a new second stage to authorise vehicles for use as self-driving on roads in Great Britain.
  • A new in-use safety assurance scheme to provide regulatory oversight of automated vehicles throughout their lifetimes to ensure they continue to be safe and comply with road rules.
  • New legal roles for users, manufacturers and service operators, with removal of criminal responsibility for the person in the passenger seat where they are not in charge of the vehicle.
  • Holding manufacturers and service operators criminally responsible for misrepresentation or non-disclosure of safety-relevant information.

A bit more detail

The report recommends introducing a new Automated Vehicles Act, to regulate vehicles that can drive themselves. 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.

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. 

This would mean that 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.

Next steps

The report has been laid before Parliament and the Scottish Parliament. The UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments will decide whether to accept the recommendations and introduce legislation to bring them into effect.