Driverless cars: What’s happening in the UK?

Written on 9 Mar 2016

Everybody seems to be at it these days, everyone’s into driverless cars. It seems that if you’re a tech company without an autonomous vehicle strategy then you’ll have one soon. But what’s happening in the UK? Autonomous driving is riddled with legal issues which naturally vary from one jurisdiction to another. Early adoption can be vital to the success of the industry in any given jurisdiction. 

With autonomous driving picking up speed (no pun intended) in the United States it is time to see what’s happening across the pond and how other jurisdictions deal with legal issues regarding autonomous driving. 

The UK government recognizes the significant benefits that driverless and automated vehicles will bring and so is working to support their development and introduction. In basic terms, it wants the UK to be at the forefront of the testing and development of the technologies that will ultimately realize the goal of driverless vehicles. 

The UK currently has a legal and regulatory framework which is well disposed to allow testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads. Driverless vehicles can legally be tested on public roads in the UK today, meaning that driverless car trials need not be restricted to test tracks or private land. Also, there’s no need for those carrying out the tests to hold specific permits or licences to do so. Yes, you will need appropriate insurance cover (as you always would when driving a vehicle), and you will need to make sure you comply with the government’s Code of Practice on driverless cars. The Code of Practice is designed as a light touch non-regulatory approach to promote safety and sets clear guidance to be followed in responsible testing but without looking to hinder innovation. 

The UK government intends to fund additional waves of research and development projects in the near future. The focus of each of these research areas is slightly different, with some concentrating, for example, on the effectiveness of the technologies on congestion and improving road safety, others on how insurance may need to change or its application to public transport. Each is designed to assess the varying challenges facing the driverless market. 

So, assuming that these tests go well and the government continues to invest in autonomous vehicles as a strategic area of importance for the UK economy, then what are some of the legal obstacles which need to be addressed to allow full blown adoption?

  • Legal framework: The UK’s current light touch regulatory approach to testing may be an attraction, but what more formal, legally binding regulations will need to be put in place to make autonomous vehicles a reality on our roads?
  • Privacy: If autonomous vehicles are to work at their most effective in a fully functioning ‘internet of things’ world then data will need to be shared more easily and protected more diligently.
  • Security: Whether it relates to connectivity generally or to the hardware and software itself, the threat of cyber security will need to be addressed to ensure mass adoption.
  • Liability: Ethical dilemmas aside, who will be responsible for the vehicle’s actions? And how will the social contract between autonomous vehicles and, say, cyclists or pedestrians change in a smart city environment?
  • Connectivity: As autonomous vehicles interact with infrastructure, other vehicles and associated devices, appropriate telecommunications standards and regulations will need to be devised.
  • Planning: If, as many suggest, truly autonomous vehicles are likely to be used principally in urban environments as a new mobility model, then how will cities and their designs need to be adapted to take account of, for instance, the need for less parking? 

We are only at the very beginning of investigating how best these new driverless vehicles might be used. A step in the right direction is the UK’s newly formed joint policy unit, the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (C-CAV). C-CAV will co-ordinate government policy on driverless cars and connected technology. Many of the legal questions raised above will likely be addressed by the joint policy unit and will hopefully provide a clearer picture for the future of autonomous driving. Engagement with the international community, through the European Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, is a key part of the UK’s plan. No doubt new issues and questions will arise as the research develops, but for anyone interested in cars, technology and the law it’s going to be an interesting ride.