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The Future is Now: Law Commission Begins Review of Self-Driving Cars (18 April 2018)

Date: 18/04/2018
Duncan Lewis, Crime Solicitors, The Future is Now: Law Commission Begins Review of Self-Driving Cars

Roads Minister Jesse Norman recently announced the start of a 3-year review by the Law Commission to examine any legal obstacles to the implementation of self-driving vehicles and highlight any requirement for regulatory reform.

The review is to help ensure that the UK remains one of the best places in the world to not only develop self-driving vehicles but actively test them on roads.

Driving law is a an extensive and complex area and the review will be crucial in examining how well current legislation can support the next generation of vehicles and what amendments may be required.

A huge proportion of the current legislation was written on the basis that the vehicle would have a “driver” and a “steering wheel”; two things that may be missing from some variations of self-driving cars. There will also be a need to consider some of the criminal offences that may be involved and the review is part of the Future of Mobility Grand Challenge originally detailed in the government’s Industrial Strategy.

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.”

The Law Commissions’ joint project will examine difficult areas of law in order to develop a regulatory framework that is ready for self-driving vehicles.

The project intends to review and answer key questions such as:

  1. Who is the driver or person responsible?

  2. How to distinguish between civil and criminal responsibility where there is some shared control of the vehicle?

  3. 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.

  4. Whether there is a need for new criminal offences to deal with novel types of conduct and interference.

  5. What is the impact on other road users and how they can be protected from risk?

There has been significant coverage of the development of self-driving cars but there has been very little discussion about the potential criminal side of new laws. Road Traffic offences fall under criminal law but there is a significant question mark as to what may account to a criminal offence in respect of vehicles that are largely driven by pre-programmed software.

Self-driving vehicles could have a huge impact on the way we live and work so it is imperative that the necessary legislature and infrastructure is in place to accommodate the new technology and widespread implementation. Autonomous vehicles may impact our daily commute, how we visit friends/family, how stock is transported around the country, how businesses help employees get to work (some may offer a self-driving service to collect employees), how children get to school, how deliveries of goods are made. The list goes on. Every corner of our life that it does affect will likely need its own regulatory infrastructure.

In short, autonomous vehicles could be the start of a global revolution in transport.

One of the key aspects to tackle is the public perception of this technology. There has been some debate about how the technology will be programmed to deal with “moral decisions”. How will a self-driving car deal with a situation where it could avoid hitting a group of pedestrians by making a manoeuver that means it only hits one? Would the vehicle potentially sacrifice its own passenger if the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the view?

These questions did not sit well with the public in various surveys taken over the past few years and there is still a general concern about how safe the vehicles are. What happens if there is a malfunction? Will drivers be expected to “reset” the software in the event of a problem? Will there be an option for occupants to assume control of the vehicle if necessary and in that scenario, what if the occupant has been drinking?

Imagine a scenario where you have been out drinking with friends and you decide to take a self-driving cab home. The car is heading towards a busy pedestrian crossing when the software crashes and/or becomes unresponsive. Would the occupant be expected to take control and if they did and they hit someone at the crossing, who (or what) would be at fault? What safeguard are going to be in place to deal with instances such as this?

We have no doubt that the manufacturers will take as many steps as they can to ensure safety and reliability but the fact is, no technology is infallible and any piece of equipment can be prone to fault. One need only look at rollercoaster accidents to see this is true as there are instances where rides have passed safety tests immediately before an accident occurs.

Aside from safety, there is always going to be a huge proportion of people who just love to drive and it is difficult to imagine a world where all driving is automated.

Regulation, safety standards and vehicle insurance models all have a key part to play in enabling change, whilst giving society confidence that these new products and services can be introduced safely.

The GATEway project is led by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) and aims to provide vital scientific insight to help shape future regulatory standards and to better understand public perceptions associated with these new mobility solutions. The project is entering its final stage and will involve a fleet of self-driving pods providing shuttle services around the Greenwich Peninsula in south-east London. The idea is to gauge public acceptance of, and attitude towards the self-driving vehicles and the results will certainly be interesting to examine.

Author Neil Sargeant is a Road Traffic specialist within the Duncan Lewis Crime Department, based in Harrow. He has specialised in Road Traffic Law since 2008, establishing close working relationships with some of the country’s leading experts in this field and maintaining an outstanding record of client acquittals. His specialist expertise extends across all road traffic law but is most extensive in:

  • Drink Driving (with breath, blood or urine samples);
  • Drug Driving;
  • Failing to provide a specimen for analysis whether this be breath, blood or urine;
  • Being drunk in charge of a vehicle;
  • Any type of road traffic case that involves a procedure conducted at hospital;
  • Dangerous & Careless driving; and
  • Cases involving a fatality.

For specialist advice please call our Road Traffic specialist Neil Sargeant on 020 3114 1145 or email him on neils@duncanlewis.com.

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