Autonomous Vehicles Consultation: are we in the right lane?

Coran Darling summarises the Government's latest moves to get cars driving for us and offers some thoughts as to whether we are headed in the right direction

On 28 April the UK Government initiated its consultation seeking to gain insight into methods of permitting safe use of automated vehicles on UK roads. The consultation follows as the outcome to their previous call for evidence in August 2020 on the use of automated vehicles and automated lane keeping systems (ALKSs) which take control of the vehicle at certain speeds, therefore keeping it in lane on motorways.

This article briefly summarises the call for evidence and its findings, the proposed terms within the consultation, and the next steps the UK government seeks to take in their pursuit of innovation in the area of automated vehicles.

The UK Government call for evidence

The call for evidence sought to consider the impact, at a national level, of the development of regulation to allow producers and users of automated systems within vehicles and automated vehicles themselves to be used on public roads.

In particular, the UK Government sought views on:

  • ensuring the safe use of ALKS, including whether ALKS met the definition of automation in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 (AEVA);
  • ensuring fair delegation of responsibility between the driver and the vehicle;
  • performing activities other than driving when the system is engaged; and
  • using the system at higher speeds.

In total, 186 responses were received from organisations including manufacturers, transport authorities, and law enforcement. Overall, the responses indicated that a number of issues, such as how drivers should be educated on systems such as ALKS and the lack of methods of identifying vehicles operating these systems, would need to be addressed in some form before they could safely be used on a wider scale on public roads. What remained consistent throughout the responses given, is that regulatory changes would need to be made to the current motoring legislation if development of automated systems and automated vehicles were to continue.

The aim of the consultation

The aim of the consultation and the subsequent regulatory changes is to maintain the UK’s position as a global leader in the development and advancement of automated vehicles. They seek to do this by amending the current regulatory regime to allow automated vehicles and automated systems such as ALKS to be tested and driven on public roads and believe this is an important step towards vehicles with higher levels of autonomy.

What is changing?

The consultation proposes a number of amendments to the Highway Code.

In particular, the consultation seeks opinion on the following proposals:

  • If you are driving a vehicle with assisted driving features, you must stay in control of the vehicle.
  • While an automated vehicle is driving itself, you are not responsible for how it drives, and you do not need to pay attention to the road. But you must follow the manufacturer’s instructions about when it is appropriate to engage the self-driving function.
  • If the vehicle is designed to require you to resume driving after being prompted to, while the vehicle is driving itself, you must remain in a position to be able to take control. For example, you should not move out of the driving seat and you should not be so distracted that you cannot take back control when prompted by the vehicle.
  • You are still responsible for the vehicle being in a roadworthy condition, having a current MOT test certificate if applicable, and being taxed and insured.

The next steps

The UK Government has called on all organisations who have interests in the development of automated motor systems to provide their opinions on the proposed amendments to legislation. In particular, they seek to know opinions on whether this achieves their goal of suitably amending the Highway Code to balance innovation with safety and any concerns they may have as a result of the amendments.

The consultation is set to conclude and a summary of its findings produced by summer 2021.

Once prepared, and the findings of a similarly subjected consultation paper by the Law Commission are reported later this year, the amendments will be proposed in Parliament by the end of 2021 in order to ensure the UK is ready for the introduction of ALKS and similar automated motor systems onto public roads.

Are they in the right lane?

Developments such as these are a clear step towards the UK Government’s plans to make the UK a global centre for development, commercialisation, and adoption of responsible AI. Equally, such regulatory changes lay the foundation for organisations to develop AI systems, within automated vehicles or otherwise, in a landscape that creates greater opportunity for innovation while maintaining the strict safety standards that are expected within the UK. This compliments the UK Governments other projects, such as the development of a ‘National AI Strategy’ which, when released later this year, intends on developing growth in the economy through widespread deployment of AI, encouraging use of ethical, safe, and trustworthy AI systems, and developing societal resilience through skill, talent, and research developments.

What remains unclear is whether this addresses aspects of society that creating room for innovation cannot. One such aspect is overall trust in the wider use of these systems in public. In February of this year, the UK Government published their response to the 2020 report created by the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence. In this, the UK Government highlighted that further work was needed to increase public trust in AI systems, through initiatives such as appropriate legislation or awareness programmes, in order to fully integrate AI into wider public use. While the proposed amendments do well to attempt to address the legality of liability of drivers and how they should behave, they do not go far enough to allow the public to know exactly what they are dealing with. One potential resolution, as highlighted in the responses to the original call for evidence would be to have mandatory signage indicating to other drivers that a vehicle has engaged or is capable of engaging in automated behaviour, in a similar fashion to learner plates for new drivers. However, it is noted that there are instances where other drivers have used this information to behave poorly around those newer drivers, such as driving too close or without sufficient consideration, and therefore the benefits would have to be weighed against the drawbacks should such a path be chosen.

In addition to areas of missed potential for amendment, the UK Government will also now have to consider the development of AI regulation from their partners in the EU. Amongst other things, the new EU AI regulation proposes a number of sweeping provisions that catch all forms of AI that touch the market. These include mandatory certifications, as discussed above, prohibited practices, and additional measures required if the AI in use is deemed ‘high-risk’. While it should be noted that these proposals have not yet become law, the UK government should consider the approach from the EU in order to more holistically develop a regime that will allow AI systems both inside and out of automated vehicles to develop rapidly while maintaining public safety and improving overall public trust in more widescale use.

Summary

The proposals from the UK Government clearly work towards promoting the development of automated motor systems and autonomous vehicles. Unfortunately, it does not appear as if they adequately address a number of the concerns of respondents to their original call for evidence, nor does it adequately address some of the wider concerns raised in previous consultations and projects on the use of AI and autonomous systems in a wider public setting.

The proposal issued by the EU on their approach to AI contains a number of potential avenues for these concerns to be addressed and it would feel somewhat of a wasted opportunity if the UK Government were to avoid considering these provisions, particularly those directed at increasing public awareness of AI systems in common use throughout their normal lives.

The proposed amendments offered for consultation by the UK Government to the Highway Code therefore are certainly a step in the right direction but feel one step short of fully addressing all areas of opportunity when it comes to promoting the wider use and development of automated motor systems and autonomous vehicles on UK public roads.

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Coran Darling is a Trainee Solicitor at DLA Piper LLP with experience in data privacy, artificial intelligence, robotics, and intellectual property, having joined the firm from the technology industry.

Published: 2021-05-13T10:00:00

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