The owners of self-driving cars will not be responsible for accidents caused by automated technology under proposals from the UK’s leading legal authorities.
A new report into the introduction of autonomous vehicles says that the manufacturer or body which gains approval for the car should, instead, be to blame for any errors or law-breaking when self-driving features are in use.
The report from the Law Commissions of England and Wales and Scotland also says that new legislation is needed to regulate automated vehicles, and demands new measures to make clear the difference between driver assistance systems and true self-driving capabilities.
The debate over who will bear responsibility for illegal or unsafe driving by automated vehicles is among the key issues in developing the technology but the Commissions’ report sets out two key suggestions on the subject.
It recommends the introduction of a new Automated Vehicles Act which would see an official regulatory body set up to approve and regulate any vehicles with “self-driving features” which do not require the person in the driver’s seat to be in control.
Under its proposals when a car is authorised as having self-driving features and those features are in use, the person in the driver’s seat would not be responsible for how the car drives and couldn’t be prosecuted for any offences arising from the driving task. They would become a “user in charge”, only responsible for secondary issues such as ensuring the car was insured, checking loads are safely secured and children are strapped in.
Instead, the manufacturer or body which obtained the car’s automated driving approval would be liable for any errors, such as speeding, running a red light or causing a collision.
Announcing the report, which was commissioned in 2018 by the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, Nicholas Paines QC, Public Law Commissioner for England and Wales, said: “We have an unprecedented opportunity to promote public acceptance of automated vehicles with our recommendations on safety assurance and clarify legal liability.”
The report also calls for “safeguards” to stop car makers marketing assisted driving systems such as adaptive cruise control as self-driving technology which takes over the entire driving task. Misleading names such as Tesla’sAutopilot have in the past been blamed for drivers overestimating their car’s capabilities.
Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer at Thatcham Research welcomed such a recommendation. He said: “To ensure clarity around system capabilities and the driver’s responsibilities there must be a clear separation between assisted driving, where the car supports the driver, and self-driving capability, where the car is responsible for the entire driving task.
“As such, we applaud the recommendations that compel carmakers to use appropriate terminology, to prevent motorists from becoming convinced that their car is fully self-driving, when it is not.”
Mr Avery added that the report provided “significant” clarity and recommendations on the legal framework needed for the safe deployment of autonomous systems but warned that early adopters of any type of “self-driving” systems needed to fully understand their responsibilities.
He said: “The transition to the safe introduction of automation with self-driving capabilities is fraught with risk as we enter the early stages of adoption.
“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 has self-driving features that, in the near future, will be limited to motorway use at low speeds.
“The driver will need to be available to take back control at any time, won’t be permitted to sleep or use their mobile phones. It is critical that early adopters understand these limitations and their legal obligations.”
Transport Minister Trudy Harrison said the development of self-driving vehicles had the potential to “revolutionise” travel.
She 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.”
Jim Holder, editorial director, What Car?, said it was important that legislation kept pace with technology and the report was a crucial first step in answering legal questions about autonomous vehicles.
He commented: “By placing responsibility of the vehicle with manufacturers and software developers when in ‘self-driving’ mode, the legislation will act as a significant incentive for manufacturers to ensure any product they introduce is safe and trustworthy. The weight of responsibility will also flush out those not willing to make the investment and could consolidate the market with joint ventures and further sharing of technology.
Ministers in the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments will now consider the Commissions’ recommendations and whether to introduce legislation to bring them into effect.