Self-driving Cars: Review of Laws Launched

The Government has announced a review of driving laws in preparation for self-driving vehicles

A detailed review of driving laws is to take place with a view, according to the Department of Transport, to ensuring that ‘the UK remains one of the best places in the world to develop, test and drive self-driving vehicles’.

It is to be a three-year review which will be a joint project for the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission.

There is an interesting contrast between the very positive noises made by the Roads Minister Jesse Norman and the more sober statements from the Law Commissions. According to the Department of Transport press release, the review is to:

‘examine any legal obstacles to the widespread introduction of self-driving vehicles and highlight the need for regulatory reforms. The work will be crucial in examining how current driving laws – designed with traditional motoring in mind – can support the next generation of vehicles.’

According to the Law Commissions,

‘we will be considering a wide variety of areas of law, ranging from road traffic legislation to product liability. We will also look at the use of automated vehicles as part of modern public transport networks and on-demand passenger services.

It is not the purpose of this review to determine whether increased automation in driving is positive or not. The Law Commissions’ task is simply to propose a legal framework which can remain effective in light of new vehicles that may no longer require a human driver at all times. Our work will be part of a national conversation on this important future technology.’

We are told that the project will review and answer key questions, such as:

  • who is the ‘driver’ or responsible person, as appropriate
  • how to allocate civil and criminal responsibility where there is some shared control in a human-machine interface
  • the role of automated vehicles within public transport networks and emerging platforms for on-demand passenger transport, car sharing and new business models providing mobility as a service
  • whether there is a need for new criminal offences to deal with novel types of conduct and interference
  • what is the impact on other road users and how they can be protected from risk.

The Law Commission describe the scope of the project thus:

'Our review will cover road-based automated vehicles.

By automated vehicles, we refer to a vehicle that is capable of driving “itself” – not being controlled or monitored by an individual, for at least part of a journey. These kinds of vehicles have also been referred to as “autonomous vehicles” or “driverless cars.”

Our project will not cover drones or vehicles designed solely for use on pavements.'

While ‘integral to delivering effective policy in this area’ and informing the Law Commissions’ review, data protection and privacy, theft and cyber security and land use policy are all out of scope. (Though it is hard to see how cyber security (outside scope) and safety (inside) can be split.)

Where ethical considerations are relevant, for example, as part of assessing the safety case for automated vehicles and software programming, the Law Commissions will highlight the regulatory choices to be made. The Law Commissions will however maintain a focus on the legal requirements and seek to avoid judging what may or may not be desirable ethical outcomes.

The Law Commissions will not cover consequential policy issues related to the advent of automation and its impact on future workforce planning in the UK.

The first year of the project will include an audit of the current law and a scoping exercise to identify key issues. A scoping paper for consultation is to be published before the end of 2018.

Roads Minister, Jesse Norman said:

‘The UK is a world leader for self-driving vehicle research and development, and this work marks an important milestone in our continued commitment to the technology. With driving technology advancing at an unprecedented rate, it is important that our laws and regulations keep pace so that the UK can remain one of the world leaders in this field.’

Law Commissioner Nicholas Paines QC said:

‘British roads are already among the safest in the world and automated vehicles have the potential to make them even safer. Provided our laws are ready for them. We’ll now start consulting widely on how the law should work with this new technology and develop reforms which enable the use of self-driving vehicles in the years to come.’

Scottish Law Commissioner Caroline Drummond said:

‘Automated vehicles could have a big impact on the way we live and work so it’s important that, UK-wide, we have a legal system which can accommodate them.’ 

Published: 2018-03-07T12:00:00

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