Law Commission says that robust regulation needed before technology is on UK roads

February 21, 2023

The Law Commission has published advice to the UK government on how to regulate remote driving on UK roads.

Remote driving technology enables a person to drive a vehicle from a remote location. It has seen rapid advancements in recent years, and it already used in controlled environments, such as warehouses and farms. The driver does not have direct line of sight of the vehicle and may be in an operations centre many miles away. This could involve the driver using several screens and a control system to direct a vehicle on the road.

Remote driving technology has several potential applications, including delivery rental cats to customers’ doors. The technology may also be used in trials of self-driving vehicles. Whereas most UK trials of self-driving vehicles have an in-vehicle “safety driver”, there is increasing interest in using remote driving technology to enable the safety driver to be located outside the vehicle.

The Law Commissions’ advice follows a review commissioned by the Department for Transport and the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. It calls for both short-term changes to the law to respond to emerging safety concerns, as well as a new regulatory regime to govern remote driving roads in the longer term.

Safety challenges considered in the review include establishing reliable connectivity, driver situational awareness, a possible sense of “detachment” from the physical world, and cybersecurity – such as the threat of a terrorist seizing control of a vehicle. The Law Commission concludes in its advice that remote driving on roads and public places should only be allowed if companies obtain special permissions.

The Law Commission’s advice also considers who may be liable in the event of an accident with remotely driven vehicles. It concludes that all victims should be protected by automatic compensation from insurers. While individual remote drivers would be responsible for their driving in the same way as in-vehicle drivers, they would not be liable for any faults beyond their control, such as those due to connectivity problems.

The advice set out in the paper is largely modelled on the Law Commission’s 2022 recommendations on autonomous vehicles, which the government has used as part of its plans to roll out self-driving cars by 2025. It includes:

  • Short terms measures to address gaps in the law: current laws to not expressly prohibit the use of remote driving technology where the driver is beyond line of sight. The Law Commission says that clarity in the law is urgently required. A new prohibition measure could be brought in immediately.
  • Safety requirements for remote driving: under these short-term measurers, companies wanting to use remote driving beyond line-of-sight on roads without an in-vehicle safety driver could submit a safety case to the Vehicle Certification Agency and apply for a vehicle special order.
  • A new regulatory system to govern remote driving over the long term: the above short-term measures would provide some clarity, but penalties and enforcement powers are limited. A new comprehensive regulatory regime for remote driving would require an Act of Parliament.
  • Licences for remote driving operations: subject to satisfying a safety standard organisations intending to use remote driving would be able to obtain a licence.
  • Safety concerns justify a ban on remote driving from overseas: given the lack of enforcement powers, remotely driving a vehicle from overseas should be prohibited until there are international agreements in place.
  • Criminal and civil liability: while remote drivers should be prosecuted for the same crimes as in-vehicle drivers, they should not be liable for any problems beyond their control, such as those due to connectivity issues or faulty remote driving equipment. Remote driving companies should instead be subject to regulatory sanctions and in serious cases, prosecution. Victims of road incidents caused by remote driving should receive no-fault compensation.

Next steps

It is now for the government to decide whether it intends to take the advice on remote driving forward.