Self-driving car users should not be responsible ‘if anything goes wrong’

·3-min read

Someone behind the wheel of a self-driving car should not be legally responsible if it is involved in a crash, according to new proposals.

A joint report by legal review bodies recommended that a clear distinction is made between features which just assist drivers, such as adaptive cruise control, and those that are self-driving.

The Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission called for legal reforms that mean the person in the driving seat of a self-driving car would be immune from prosecution “if anything goes wrong”, such as speeding or running a red light.

Under the plan, the company or body that obtained authorisation for the technology – the authorised self-driving entity – would instead face sanctions.

Whoever is in the driving seat would remain responsible for other duties such as obtaining insurance, checking loads and ensuring child passengers wear seat belts.

The Law Commissions also recommended that passenger services conducted by self-driving vehicles are accessible, particularly to older and disabled people.

Nicholas Paines QC, Public Law Commissioner, said Britain has an “unprecedented opportunity to promote public acceptance of automated vehicles”.

David Bartos, Scottish Law Commissioner, said the proposals focused on “ensuring safety and accountability while encouraging innovation and development”.

Transport minister Trudy Harrison said the development of self-driving vehicles in the UK “has the potential to revolutionise travel, making everyday journeys safer, easier and greener”.

She continued: “This Government has been encouraging development and deployment of these technologies to understand their benefits.

“However, we must ensure we have the right regulations in place, based upon safety and accountability, in order to build public confidence.”

Mike Hawes, chief executive of industry body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said the recommendations of the Law Commissions will “put Britain in the vanguard of road safety and automotive technology, by providing a framework for the use of self-driving vehicles which could save thousands of lives”.

He added: “The industry welcomes the introduction of authorised self-driving entities, which can be the vehicle manufacturer, software provider or fleet operator, as the system of multiple checks and balances will give drivers confidence in the latest technology to make their journeys safer.”

AA president Edmund King said: “While many technological elements of automation or automatic lane keeping systems will bring safety benefits, we should not be encouraging drivers to take their hands off the wheel until these systems are regulated and fail-safe.

“The Law Commission is right to distinguish between driver-assistance features and self-driving, and to ensure driver assistance features aren’t marketed as self-driving.

“What is less clear is when such technologies can be used on the road.

“Meanwhile, there still remains a large level of scepticism amongst the driving public who are unconvinced that fully autonomous cars can co-exist alongside human drivers.”

Fully driverless car are not yet legally permitted in the UK, but autonomous features are being developed by car makers.

In April last year the Department for Transport announced it would allow hands-free driving in vehicles with lane-keeping technology on congested motorways, at speeds of up to 37mph.

Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer at road safety organisation Thatcham Research, which contributed to a consultation for the report, warned that the transition to self-driving cars is “fraught with risk”.

He said: “In the next 12 months, we’re likely to see the first iterations of self-driving features on cars in the UK.

“It’s significant that the Law Commission report highlights the driver’s legal obligations and how they must understand that their vehicle is not yet fully self-driving.”

It will be for the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments to decide whether the accept the report’s recommendations.