The Modern Transport Bill: royally good news for driverless cars, drones and spaceports

Written on 25 May 2016

“My Ministers will ensure the United Kingdom is at the forefront of technology for new forms of transport, including autonomous and electric vehicles”

This was the statement of intent made in the Queen’s Speech to Parliament on 18 May 2016. Whilst we are still some way from fully autonomous vehicles that will whisk us around without any need for driver interaction, ubiquitous drone delivery or mass-market space flight, the government’s latest plans signal a clear commitment to putting in place a legal framework that allows emerging autonomous transport technology to grow and flourish.

A bill directed at driving innovation:

The purpose of the proposed Bill is to “cut red tape” and create “conditions that drive innovation”, in order to make the UK a global centre for the development, testing and implementation of autonomous technology and vehicles. We saw indications of this pro-driverless stance in this year’s Budget, which announced that driverless cars will be tested on UK motorways by the end of 2017, and the Innovation Technology and Research Strategy published by Highways England, which provides £150million for highways innovation projects between now and 2021.  In parallel, the European Commission has announced plans to introduce a European framework for the deployment of interoperable connected and automated driving by 2019 (the Declaration of Amsterdam – see more here).

The importance of legal certainty

The importance of legal certainty for the autonomous vehicle industry should not be underestimated. In a sector which needs to account for the safety of all road users, clear guidelines on liability for accidents, malfunctions and potential hacks are key.  One particularly important element of the speech is the commitment to ensuring that insurance companies provide adequate coverage for autonomous vehicles, as this potential ‘liability gap’ has been concerning the both the automotive and insurance industries.  The increased certainty should give more confidence to manufacturers and other interested parties to press ahead with innovation.

Wider plans

Plans under the Bill are wider than just autonomous vehicles themselves. The Bill will put in place a framework for the establishment of the UK’s first spaceport, for commercial spaceflight.  Furthermore, as drones are becoming more widespread in both the business and consumer world, and spaceplanes are going through testing, it is essential to ensure that members of the public remain safe, while encouraging the development of new technologies.

In short, the Queen’s Speech indicates this government’s support for the development of driverless and automated technologies. It remains to be seen how the ideas set out in the Queen’s Speech will be developed and delivered, but the statement of intent is positive and reassuring for the autonomous technology industry.

If you want more information on the legal developments relating to connected and autonomous vehicles, look out for a series of articles from Osborne Clarke over the next few months.