Navigating the Legal Landscape of Self Driving and Electric Vehicles

Ben Kaplinsky reviews the current state of regulation for AV and EV vehicles worldwide and ponders what the UK should do to remain competitive in the sector.

There have been a few notable examples of far-sighted individuals accurately predicting dramatic technological innovations that have changed the world. Arthur C Clarke accurately predicted the internet as far back as 1974, Douglas Adams predicted Alexa (“the book” in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Some readers may remember KITT the robotic sports car with personality from the 1980s TV Show Knight Rider? Is it likely that in 10 years-time an electric driverless taxi (with or without its own personality) will silently arrive at your door and deliver you to work for a £2 fee? At the time of writing the technology currently exists to make this possible. While it is impossible to accurately peer into a crystal ball and see the future, we can be fairly sure that the future of road transport will transform in the next decade with the rise of electric vehicles (EV’s) and autonomous vehicles (AV’s) becoming an every-day reality.

There are some very important benefits to these new technologies. Currently on average every year 1650 people are killed on UK roads and 27,000 suffer catastrophic injuries. AV’s have been shown, counter-intuitively, to be significantly safer than conventional vehicles and conventional vehicles currently account for nearly 30% of carbon emissions. AV’s may also significantly benefit people made immobile through disabilities and AVs and EVs cause little noise pollution as well as significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional petrol engines. The impending revolution in road transport will, it seems, unquestionably improve our lives making roads safer and enabling us to accelerate towards a more efficient, cleaner, carbon-neutral world.

This automotive revolution presents a plethora of challenges and opportunities for companies and regulators. From a legal perspective it is imperative to strike a balance between promoting innovation and safety while ensuring that the gaps between existing laws and emerging technologies are bridged. Technology lawyers must navigate a complex and evolving landscape to help their clients seize the substantial opportunities to thrive in this very fast-growing market while framing and managing new risks and liabilities. Legal specialists will have an important role in the delivery of safe a rapid automotive revolution.

AV & EV Glossary
Autonomous Vehicle (AV) A vehicle that can operate without human intervention or input.
Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) A set of technologies designed to assist the driver with steering, braking, and acceleration, and to provide alerts for potential hazards on the road.
Connected Vehicle A vehicle that can communicate with other vehicles, infrastructure, and the internet.
LiDAR A remote sensing technology that uses laser beams to measure distances and create high-resolution 3D maps of an environment.
Machine Learning A type of artificial intelligence that allows machines to learn and improve from experience without being explicitly programmed.
PHEV Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle – a vehicle with both an electric and petrol engine.
Sensor Fusion The process of combining data from multiple sensors, such as cameras, LiDAR, and radar, to create a more complete and accurate understanding of the environment.
Range Anxiety The fear or concern that an electric vehicle will not be able to travel far enough on a single charge to meet the needs of the driver
Teleoperation The process of remotely controlling a vehicle, typically used for testing or in emergency situations.
V2X Vehicle-to-Everything communication, including Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V), Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I), and Vehicle-to-Pedestrian (V2P)

1.EV Challenge: Development of a Viable Charging Infrastructure

One of the most pressing challenges facing the EV industry is the development of charging infrastructure. Without a robust charging network, EV’s are not a viable transportation option. To overcome this challenge, governments and companies must work together to incentivise the installation of charging stations and ensure they are designed to minimise strain on the electric grid.

2. EV Challenge: Human Rights Abuses in Supply Chain

Companies must consider the ethical and compliance implications of sourcing rare earth metals such as cobalt which are used in EV batteries. Ensuring that supply chains are free from human rights abuses is essential to ensure corporate social responsibility, compliance with regulatory provisions such as the Modern Slavery Act and to maintain the integrity of the EV industry.

Unfortunately, the mining of these minerals in Congo has been associated with a range of human rights abuses, including child labour, forced labour, and unsafe working conditions.

There have also been concerns about environmental degradation and corruption related to the mining industry in the country. Efforts are being made to address the issues associated with mining in the country.

For example, some car manufacturers have committed to using only responsibly sourced materials in their batteries, and initiatives such as the Responsible Minerals Initiative aim to improve transparency and accountability in the mineral supply chain. Ensuring that supply chains are free from human rights abuses is essential for legal compliance and to maintain the integrity of the EV industry
map of congo mining
Congo produces 70% of the world’s Cobalt

3. EV Challenge: Battery Recycling

Battery recycling is another compliance challenge for EV manufacturers. Lithium-ion batteries which are commonly used in EV’s, contain materials that can be harmful to the environment if not disposed of properly. Manufacturer must ensure that a significant portion of the weight of their batteries is recycled and provide information to the environmental impact of the batteries over their life cycle.

4. EV Challenge: Product Safety

EV’s have been proven to be much safer than traditional vehicles due to their lack of inflammable fluids and other factors like stability and lower centres of gravity. Safety challenges have been met both in relation to the safety of occupants and other road users, as well as the safety of infrastructure and products related to EVs. To further promote safety governments are establishing new safety regulations and standards for EVs and are providing information on safe charging practices and safety tips to the public.

1. AV Challenge: Need for Transformed Regulatory Frameworks

Existing regulations governing vehicles, traffic, and safety (such as the UK Highway Code) will need to be fully and thoroughly revised to account for the unique characteristics of self-driving vehicles. Governments will need to determine how to certify and approve autonomous systems and how to ensure that they are operating safely on public roads. The UK Law Commission has reported on the legal issues raised by AV’s and set out a detailed analysis of the risks and benefits of AV’s and the key areas where changes to the UK law will be necessary. The commission recommended the creation of a new legal framework establishing clear rules and standards for the development, testing, authorisation and operation of self-driving cars that should be developed in collaboration with industry stakeholders, regulators and other relevant parties. The commission further recommended that a new insurance framework will be necessary as the risks associated with autonomous vehicles are different from those associated with traditional vehicles with a recommended combination of a compulsory insurance and a no-fault insurance scheme. The report highlighted the importance of clarifying the roles and responsibilities of different parties involved in the development and deployment of AVs to ensure obligations and liabilities are understood thus helping to minimise the risk of accidents.

2. AV Challenge: Establishing Transformed Principles of Product Liability

As autonomous vehicles become more prevalent, responsibility for accidents and injuries will shift from drivers to manufacturers and software developers. Product liability law will need to be updated to reflect this change, and manufacturers may need to adopt new safety standards to minimize the risk of accidents and injuries.

3. AV Challenge: Cyber-Security Threats

Autonomous vehicles rely on a variety of sensors, cameras, and other technologies to operate. As a result, they generate vast amounts of data that needs to be securely transmitted, processed, and stored. Cybersecurity risks must be addressed to prevent hackers from accessing and manipulating data or taking control of the vehicle, putting occupants and other road users at risk. In addition, data privacy laws must be updated to ensure that consumers' personal data is protected and that they have control over how it is collected, used, and shared.

Nation Current progress Legal strategy
China China is the world's largest market for electric vehicles with more than 1 million sold every year since 2018. The Chinese government has this year announced plans to have autonomous vehicles account for 20% of all new car sales by 2025. China has the world’s fastest technology law making system of any large nation. This is due to three factors: (i) China has a highly centralized government system, which allows it to make decisions quickly and implement policies across the country rapidly; (ii) China has made technology a top priority in its economic development plan. The government is highly motivated to ensure that technology-related legislation is enacted quickly to support the growth of the tech industry; and (iii) China's lack of democratic processes means that there is less public debate and scrutiny over proposed legislation. The government can more easily pass legislation without having to worry about opposition from interest groups, opposition parties, or the general public.
Norway Norway is considered the leader in the adoption of EV’s. The country's system of incentives includes reduced taxes and tolls for electric vehicle owners, free parking and charging, and subsidies for the installation of charging stations. The government has invested heavily in building out the charging infrastructure across the country, including fast charging stations along major highways.
USA The United States has a fast-growing network of charging stations and is one of the leading countries when it comes to the development of autonomous vehicles. There have been several federal and state regulations in place to support the development and testing of autonomous vehicles. In addition, several states, including California, have created their own regulations and guidelines for autonomous vehicles.
Netherlands The Netherlands has one of the highest electric vehicle adoption rates in Europe, with over 30% of new cars sold being electric. The Dutch government has implemented a range of incentives to encourage this adoption, including tax exemptions, subsidies for electric vehicles, and incentives for businesses to install charging stations. The government has also set targets for the installation of public charging stations and is investing heavily in expanding the infrastructure.
Germany There are currently more than 40,000 EV charging stations in Germany making Germany one of the world’s most advanced EV economies. The German government has introduced new regulations that allow for the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads and a range of incentives to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles, including tax exemptions, purchase incentives, and support for the installation of charging infrastructure.
UK There are now more than 25,000 EV charging stations in the UK. Companies are now able to obtain permits to test autonomous vehicles on public roads in the UK. In relation to EV’s the UK government is implementing the Road to Zero Strategy which introduces plans and incentives to promote the EV industry. In relation to AV’s, it has implemented a Code of Practise on the testing of autonomous vehicles, has established the Centre for Autonomous and Connected Vehicles.

IP Challenges faced by AV and EV Companies

Developing Avs and EVs requires companies to navigate a complex landscape of existing patents and trade secrets. With a multitude of patents, covering various aspects of AV and EV technology including sensors, batteries, charging infrastructure and motors, avoiding infringement can be a significant challenge. In addition, companies must also be careful to protect their own trade secrets which can be critical to success. For example, a company may have developed a unique algorithm that provides a competitive advantage in autonomous driving. If this were to be disclosed, it could undermine the company’s position on the market. AV and EV companies rely on a complex ecosystem of suppliers, partners and competitors. As such companies must collaborate on innovation while also protecting their own IP. It is a delicate balance that requires careful consideration of a range of legal and commercial factors.

What can the UK Government do to keep pace with international competition?

To ensure that the UK can become a global leader in the adoption of AV’s and EV’s the UK government should look to further support this automotive revolution by:

  1. Fostering a highly skilled modern workforce suited to the AV and EV sectors by encouraging universities and colleges to provide courses such as robotic engineering and machine learning.
  2. Providing targeted funding for start ups and scale-ups including government grants, tax breaks and low interest loans.
  3. As recommended by the recent Law Commission report, create a clear regulatory framework, that is agile and responsive, that prioritizes safety and reliability while encouraging innovation and experimentation including laws and protocols on testing and deployment of AV’s and providing guidance and support to industry players on compliance and best-practises.
  4. Promote collaboration and knowledge sharing to accelerate innovation. This can be done by setting up platforms for industry stakeholders to network, share expertise and resources. 
  5. Encourage the adoption of EV’s and AV’s by providing incentives to consumers, fleet owners and businesses.
  6. In relation to the EV Charging Infrastructure the UK government should seek to co-ordinate the different stakeholders such as local authorities and private companies.
  7. Seek to harmonise technology regulations with other jurisdictions to avoid compatibility barriers which add to cost, compliance and operational burdens on business working with organisations such as the International Standards Organisation.

As shown above the Chinese economy is starting to outpace western nations, such as the UK, largely as a result of the speed of their law-making process that prioritises new technologies. While maintaining the integrity of our democratic principles, this is something the UK should seek to emulate. Legislators in the UK need to find a way to legitimately accelerate our government decision-making process to enable Westminster to match the speed of Chinese legislators and keep up with those who are engineering the EVs and AVs that promise to deliver us all to a safer and cleaner world.

profile picture of Ben Kaplinsky

Ben Kaplinsky is a technology lawyer who specialises in acting for companies that pioneer the manufacture and deployment of emerging technologies.  He can be contacted at

Published: 2023-05-09T14:00:00

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