What have Toy Story, Terminator 3 and Tomorrow Never Dies all got in common?  Yes, you guessed it, they all contained (exciting) remote driving scenes!  Fast forward to today and remote driving is a fast-developing technology and in real day to day use. The technology is already being used in certain environments that are hazardous or uncomfortable for drivers, such as some warehouses, ports and farms. Remote driving technology has many other potential applications such as delivering rental cars to customers’ homes. The technology can also be used in trials of autonomous vehicles. Whereas most UK trials of self-driving vehicles have an in-vehicle “safety driver”, there is increasing interest in using remote driving technology to enable the safety driver to be located outside the vehicle. 

In February 2023, the Law Commission published a paper advising the Government on the law surrounding remote driving in the UK and the reforms that are needed.  The paper stems from a review commissioned by the Department for Transport and the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV).

The Law Commission defines “remote driving” as when the driver “does not have direct line of sight of the vehicle and may be in an operations centre many miles away”. This is, of course, not to be confused with “driverless” or “autonomous” driving! 

Law Commission’s advice

  • Short terms measures to fill in existing gaps the law

Currently, there are no express legal requirements for a driver to be inside the vehicle, or any provisions entirely preventing remote driving.  Some rules were written on the assumption that the driver is in the car and are difficult to apply to remote driving.  The Commission proposes a short-term prohibition on remote driving beyond line-of-sight. This would apply unless the vehicle is accompanied by a safety driver. Alternatively, those wishing to drive remotely beyond the line of sight would have to pass safety checks with the Vehicle Certification Agency and obtain a Vehicle Special Order (VSO).

  • New, long-term remote driving regulatory framework to provide penalties and enforcement powers

The Law Commission considers the VSO a short-term solution due to limited regulatory inspection powers and sanctions. It recommends the creation of an Entity for Remote Driving Operation (ERDO) which will be responsible for oversight of beyond line-of-sight driving, including the issuing of licences. These licences would have to be obtained by all organisations behind remote operations, not individual employees, and would be required by any organisation using beyond line-of-sight remote driving that is not eligible for a “No User-in-Charge Operator” (NUICO) licence. The licence would last for five years at a time. And yes, you guessed it, remote driving of a vehicle beyond line-of-sight without a valid licence would be a criminal offence.

  • Ban remote driving from overseas due to the lack of practical enforcement powers;

A study accompanying the Commission’s advice suggests that businesses are likely to base remote operating centres in Estonia or Belarus, where the costs of employing drivers are lower. This creates issues around accountability and law enforcement. For example, how would one carry out a breathalyser test on a (remote) driver or enforce a fine if the business does not have assets in the UK. This could result in injustice to victims of poor remote driving. The Law Commission therefore recommends that VSOs, in the short term, should not be granted for remote driving operations stationed abroad. It also recommends that police should be given powers to stop and seize vehicles that they believe are contravening this requirement.

  • Exclude remote drivers from criminal liability for problems beyond their control, such as connectivity issues or faulty equipment.

The technical nature of remote driving means that responsibility for a collision may lie with a range of parties, such as the individual driver, their employer, network provider, or hardware or software producers. There may be instances where responsibility rests with more than one party, and conversely there may be cases when no-one is liable.  So, as the Law Commission is clear that a victim should not have to prove fault to claim compensation, it recommends that licensed entities should hold no-fault insurance policies modelled on the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018.

The Commission also proposes a new statutory defence where a remote driver acting for a licensed entity will not be found guilty if a) they would not have been aware of the circumstances giving rise to liability or b) would not have avoided commission of the offence.

The Government will now decide whether to accept the Law Commission’s conclusions. Meanwhile, get ready for the drive of your life!