Driverless Cars: is the law still playing catch-up?

11 May 2017

We published a blog last year about Uber’s pilot and driverless cars and, at that point, it seemed straight out of the pages of a science fiction novel, but driverless cars are now well and truly amongst us, and it seems that everyone is jumping on the band wagon.

On 21 April 2017, the government announced that they are investing
£1 billion in cutting-edge technologies. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund will be investing £38 million in new collaborative research and development projects in driverless car technology to ensure the UK is at the forefront of the driverless cars revolution. This sector is predicted to be worth £63 billion by 2035.

Members of the public could be able to summon driverless cars in two years’ time after the government handed a consortium £12.8 million to research and develop self-driving technology.  FiveAI, a start-up artificial intelligence firm, is developing the trial with Direct Line, the University of Oxford, Transport for London and the Transport Research Laboratory.  The trial, based in South London, aims to demonstrate a fully-working driverless car system of approximately 10 cars, including the ability to order rides with an app towards the latter end of 2019. FiveAI plans to raise further money privately.

Unsurprisingly, this project is just one of a number: Transport Systems Catapult and Oxbotica claim to have completed the first-ever trial of a driverless car in the UK in October 2016. Oxford-based AI firm Oxbotica is also leading a consortium of companies to spur the development of driverless cars following a £8.6 million Innovate UK grant. The DRIVEN consortium seeks to place a fleet of fully autonomous cars in urban areas and motorways. Nissan is currently trialling autonomous vehicles in London, and a self-driving shuttle is open to members of the public in Greenwich, London.

In the USA, Google and Tesla have been well established for some time with their driverless cars and Apple recently announced it was joining the race to design self-driving cars, having obtained the relevant permit in California. There is, however, stiff competition; 29 other companies already have California permits to test self-driving cars.

Now, it seems the UK government has made research into driverless cars a pillar of its industrial strategy, saying it wants to ensure the UK is at the forefront of the new technology. Whilst self-driving cars could ease congestion, and save millions of people who die annually in traffic accidents often caused by drunk or distracted motorists, are the concerns we raised in our previous blog regarding the lack of an adequate legal framework still present?

The short answer is yes. In some respects, we must acknowledge that driverless cars will sometimes crash, and perhaps we, as a society, need to adapt, accept and (to a degree) tolerate that prospect. However, at the moment there is a distinct lack of legislation and regulation in place to deal with the consequences of such incidents, in particular the apportionment of liability in the event of an accident, a concern we raised in our previous blog.

The government public consultation on the Pathway to Driverless Cars concluded on 9 September 2016. The government confirmed as a consultation outcome that it would take forward the Modern Transport Bill, which subsequently became the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill (known as the ‘Driverless Cars Bill’). The Driverless Cars Bill would extend compulsory motor insurance to automated driving and provides insurers with the ability to recover compensation payments from vehicle or software manufacturers where the collision is the fault of the driverless vehicle. Parliament confirmed on 20 April 2017 that the Driverless Cars Bill will not be pushed through in the period between the general election announcement and the dissolution of Parliament, meaning it will be lost, along with all other unpublished bills.

Any new government will need to continue to support this legislation in order for the provision extending motor insurance to automated vehicles to find its way into UK law.  Regardless of the election result, it seems that Brexit will be the new government's main priority and therefore any new legislation in respect of driverless cars is likely take a back seat for the foreseeable future.

It’s clear that driverless cars are likely to become commonplace on our roads sooner rather than later, and there have been recent reports about the development of driverless boats in Amsterdam and Uber wanting to test driverless planes by 2020. However, the legislative gaps will need to be filled first to deal with the consequences of the inevitable (but hopefully rare) collisions that will occur in our automated future. Whilst we are not quite ‘there’ with driverless cars yet, we are not even off the ground in respect of the required legislation. It seems that the government (and lawyers) still have a lot to do before we truly are driverless.

For more information on this topic please contact Andrew Solomon. 

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