In the King's Speech, the Government announced plans for a new law that will pin liability on a self-driving car's manufacturer, rather than its owner, in the event of a crash. This is not, of course, unexpected.
The Automated Vehicles Bill is scheduled to be in force by 2025, reflecting the Government's plan to support technology rollouts. Other provisions include updated safety standards, improved investigation of automated accidents and digitisation of road signs and markings.
This proposal furthers the Law Commission's recommendation to create an Autonomous Vehicles Act. It remains to be seen whether the new law will reflect the recommendations of the Commission, but if it does, the assignment of liability will work as follows:
Under the Law Commissions’ proposals, when a car is authorised by a regulatory agency as having “self-driving features”, and those features are in use, the person in the driving seat would no longer be responsible for how the car drives. Instead, the manufacturer or other body that obtained the authorisation (an Authorised Self-Driving Entity or ASDE) would face regulatory sanctions if anything goes wrong.
It is not yet entirely clear what will constitute a “self-driving feature”. Many functions in modern cars have autonomous functionality. The Law Commission expects this functionality to improve until driver attention is no longer needed, at which point the relationship between driver and car will need to be reconsidered in the legal context.
While the Law Commission suggested that a regulatory agency should be responsible for defining where the line is, the Bill will need a clear definition of an automated vehicle. More certainty is welcome, as the ambiguity of the term “self-driving” has put Tesla in legal difficulty.
Certain forms of automated driving, referred to as ‘assisted driving systems’ by the Highway Code are already legal, for example automated lane-keeping systems and cruise control. The Highway Code permits users to look away from the road when these automated features are in place, but they have to regain control when needed. Similar requirements are likely to be used in the Automated Vehicles Bill.
The Government expects road accidents to decrease dramatically once future technology is rolled out, attributing 88% of accidents to human error. The Bill is designed to ease the transition from driver-dominated roads to a safer and more accessible road network, while providing certainty to manufacturers before they risk investing large sums of money into a legal grey area. Of course, that reduction will take time (and not be without accident); it comes at a cost to manufacturers who will need to secure robust contractual protections from their supply chain, especially in respect of software, hardware and other electronics, which together are predicted to comprise some 50% of the cost of a car by 2030. Manufacturers will also need to look again at how they insure such significant risks. The consumer will of course ultimately have to pay, but the prospect of less congestion, fewer accidents and more ‘spare’ time, should be worthwhile. As long as we all stay in lane.
Every authorised self-driving vehicle will have a corresponding Authorised Self-Driving Entity– often the manufacturer – which will be responsible for the behaviour of the vehicle when self-driving. Companies will have ongoing obligations to keep their vehicles safe and ensure that they continue to drive in accordance with British laws.