UK kicks off driverless car law review to get tech on the road by 2021

In 2021 the UK government intends the country to be well on its way to a driverless future.

No, not a cheap joke about Brexit — yesterday it announced a three-year regulatory review to “pave the way for self-driving cars”.

This follows the budget, in November, when the government announced a tranche of funding for technology innovations — including AI and driverless cars — and said it wants to establish a looser framework for testing self-driving vehicles “without a safety operator” with the stated aim of getting driverless cars on the roads by 2021.

The law review meshes with that goal, though the government is clearly giving itself a very tight timetable for resolving regulatory complications and passing the necessary legislation.

The myriad technological challenges of ensuring autonomous vehicles can operate safety and efficiently in all weather conditions are really just one portion of the challenge here.

Other major barriers include things like public acceptance of self-driving technology, and liability and insurance complications that arise once you remove human drivers from the mix — raising questions like how do you apportion blame when something goes wrong?

But the law review, which will be jointly carried out by the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission, is intended to grapple with exactly these issues.

Among the questions to be reviewed and — says the government — answered are:

  • who is the ‘driver’ or responsible person, as appropriate
  • how to allocate civil and criminal responsibility where there is some shared control in a human-machine interface
  • the role of automated vehicles within public transport networks and emerging platforms for on-demand passenger transport, car sharing and new business models providing mobility as a service
  • whether there is a need for new criminal offences to deal with novel types of conduct and interference
  • what is the impact on other road users and how they can be protected from risk

Commenting in a statement, roads minister, Jesse Norman said: “The UK is a world leader for self-driving vehicle research and development, and this work marks an important milestone in our continued commitment to the technology.

“With driving technology advancing at an unprecedented rate, it is important that our laws and regulations keep pace so that the UK can remain one of the world leaders in this field.”

Law commissioner Nicholas Paines QS, added: “British roads are already among the safest in the world and automated vehicles have the potential to make them even safer. Provided our laws are ready for them.

“We’ll now start consulting widely on how the law should work with this new technology and develop reforms which enable the use of self-driving vehicles in the years to come.”

“Automated vehicles could have a big impact on the way we live and work so it’s important that, UK-wide, we have a legal system which can accommodate them,” said Scottish law commissioner, Caroline Drummond, in another statement.

Norman announced the review during a visit to the GATEway driverless car project in Greenwich, which last year piloted an autonomous shuttle pod for ferrying people along a short pedestrian and cycle path in the London region.

The project has continued to run autonomous tests but is now entering its final phase which the government says will involve a fleet of automated pods providing a shuttle service around the Greenwich Peninsula, aimed at understanding public acceptance of, and attitudes towards, self-driving vehicles.

Also commenting on the law review in a statement, Rob Wallis, CEO of TRL, the company behind the GATEway project, said: “Regulation, safety standards and vehicle insurance models all have a key part to play in enabling change, whilst giving society confidence that these new products and services can be introduced safely.”

The review forms part of the government’s push to encourage mobility innovations as set out in its Industrial Strategy — which it says is aimed at boosting the UK’s long term productivity and the earning power of citizens. (So presumably the government’s long term vision for truckers, cabbies and private hire vehicle drivers is for them to shift gears into higher tech careers.)

In the Future of Mobility Grand Challenge, one of several the Industrial Strategy sets out — to “put the UK at the forefront of the industries of the future” — the government writes that it wants to “look for opportunities to improve customers’ experience, drive efficiency and enable people to move around more freely”.

“The UK’s road and rail network could dramatically reduce carbon emissions and other pollutants, congestion could be reduced through higher-density use of road space enabled by automated vehicles, and mobility could be available when we want it, where we want it and how we want it,” it adds.