Law commissions seek clear line on driverless cars

Legal experts have called for a new Automated Vehicles Act to draw a clear distinction between genuine self-driving features and those that merely assist drivers, such as adaptive cruise control.

The Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission have published a joint report, making recommendations for the safe and responsible introduction of self-driving vehicles.

Under their proposals, when an automated driving system (ADS) authorised by a regulatory agency is in use in a car, the person in the driving seat would no longer be responsible for how the car drives.

Instead, the company or body that obtained the authorisation (an Authorised Self-Driving Entity) would face regulatory sanctions if anything goes wrong.

The Law Commissions also recommended new rules to stop driver assistance features from being marketed as self-driving, which they said would help minimise the risk of collisions caused by people thinking they do not need to pay attention to the road.

Nicholas Paines QC, Public Law Commissioner said: ‘We have an unprecedented opportunity to promote public acceptance of automated vehicles with our recommendations on safety assurance and clarify legal liability. We can also make sure accessibility, especially for older and disabled people, is prioritised from the outset.’

Transport minister Trudy Harrison said: ‘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.

‘That’s why the Department funded this independent report and I look forward to fully considering the recommendations and responding in due course.’

The report also warns against expecting drivers to instinctively take back control of the vehicle: ‘We do not think that a user-in-charge should be expected to respond to events in the absence of a transition demand.’

It contrasts this with approaches taken in other countries, where users are required to respond to circumstances such as a tyre blowout or emergency vehicles, arguing that these exceptions require too much from a user who has been told that they do not need to pay attention to the driving task.

The report concludes that, for an ADS feature to be considered self-driving, it must be safe enough even if the human user does not intervene in response to any event except a transition demand.

AA president Edmund King said: 'While many technological elements of automation or automatic lane keeping systems will bring in 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.’

Referring to an issue highlighted by Transport Network, Mr King said: ‘What is less clear is when such technologies can be used on the road. The Department of Transport has already missed its 2021 ambitions to get trails of fully driverless cars on the roads although there is now a trial underway in Milton Keynes which we will watch with interest.’

Mr King’s reference to a trial in Milton Keynes was to the Fetch service, which allows people to use a ride-hailing app to order a car to be delivered by remote control, guided by an operator back in a control centre.

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