The Law Commissions of England and Wales and Scotland have announced proposals for a comprehensive new legal framework to ensure the safety of self-driving vehicles.
Among other legal innovations, a new concept of the user-in-charge would be created to describe a former driver once the vehicle is driving itself. A user-in-charge would not be criminally liable if a crash occurred while in self-driving mode.
The plans include:
- Implementing a new, start-to-finish self-driving vehicle safety assurance scheme, including monitoring performance and software updates throughout the vehicle’s life
- Clearly defining the responsibility of drivers, users and fleet owners according to the capabilities of self-driving technologies to help ensure vehicles are used as intended
- Ensuring that manufacturers and technology developers recognise their role in guaranteeing the safety of the vehicle, while freeing the driver from responsibility when self-driving mode is engaged.
On the issue of vehicle safety, a two-track system would give manufacturers the choice of type approval for the vehicle under an international framework or a new national scheme.
This would be followed by a categorisation decision to establish whether the vehicle is self-driving for British purposes, and how it can lawfully be used on this country’s roads.
The legal framework would create distinctive rules for two types of automated vehicle: Category-1 AVs that might require human driving for part of a journey and Category-2 AVs that can complete a whole journey unaided and without a user in the vehicle.
‘Category-1 AVs might only drive themselves on the motorway and need a human to complete the rest of the trip. The human would be a driver while off the motorway but would be a user-in-charge while the vehicle was driving itself. Users-in-charge are not responsible for the driving but continue to have responsibilities such as insuring the vehicle, duties after an accident and ensuring children wear seat belts.
‘Category-2 AVs may be entirely remotely operated as part of a licensed fleet with a user classified as a passenger. The vehicle fleets will need to be looked after by a licensed operator who will also have specific responsibilities, for example supervising their fleets and providing prompt support if they get stuck as well as maintenance for example.’
The framework would be ‘underpinned by robust incident investigation and enforced through a flexible range of regulatory powers and sanctions.’ the Law Commissions said.
The Law Commissions recommend a shift away from the criminal enforcement of traffic rules towards a new ‘no-blame safety culture’ borrowed from the aviation sector, including a new range of regulatory sanctions.
However the commissions are seeking views on the possibility of new corporate offences where wrongs by a developer resulted in death or serious injury.
Transport minister Rachel Maclean said: ‘Self-driving vehicles can contribute to improving and levelling up transport across the country, making everyday journeys greener, safer, more flexible and more reliable.
‘The UK is leading the way on the regulation of this technology, supporting innovation and putting safety at the heart of everything we do – ensuring self-driving vehicles are safe, secure and ultimately benefit all of society.’
The proposals were published as the third and final consultation from the Law Commissions after they were tasked by the UK Government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) to undertake a far-reaching review of the legal framework for automated vehicles.
Nicholas Paines QC, Public Law Commissioner, said: ‘It’s vital that the public have confidence in this technology.
‘Our proposed legal framework will ensure that this technology can be safely deployed, whilst the flexibility built into the rules and regulations will allow us to keep up with advances in the technology.’
David Bartos, Scottish Law Commissioner, said: ‘The responses to our consultation, from a wide range of stakeholders will help us to create a legal framework that achieves these aims.’
The closing date to respond to the consultation is 18 March 2021.
A final report is due in the final quarter of 2021.
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