Stock take: Legal groundwork laid for self-driving cars on UK roads

The UK government is developing legislation to permit autonomous cars to drive on public roads, which will address a range of issues such as insurance, liability and cybersecurity and establish a legal framework to govern driverless vehicles.

Known as the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act (AEVA), the legislation is spearheaded by the Law Commission (the body responsible for consulting with the public and relevant industries ahead of the introduction of new laws), and work has now begun on identifying how laws could be modified to accommodate autonomous cars.

When complete, the legislation will apply to cars that can drive independently some or all of the time – effectively level-three autonomy and above, as defined by SAE International.

Many cars are currently available with level-two features, such as lane-keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control systems operating simultaneously. Level three is a big jump, comprising hands-off technology, which means the person at the wheel doesn’t drive at all when the system is engaged but must retake control when the car says so.

The new Honda Legend, which was launched in Japan this March with a price tag of 11 million yen (£71,000) and limited to 100 lease sales, is said to be the first car available with officially sanctioned level-three technology. Its Traffic Jam Pilot system was approved by Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism last November as being allowed to operate the car independently at up to 31mph on major carriageways.

The British Department for Transport (DfT) made a similar pledge this April when it announced that cars with automated lane-keeping systems (ALKS) would legally be allowed on the road before the end of this year, with their operation capped at 37mph.

The DfT said that it would “ensure the safe use of ALKS, including whether [it] met the definition of automation in the AEVA,” which is the first example of the legislation in action, even though it remains in the consultation phase and isn’t expected to be complete or enforceable for some time.

“It was enacted in 2018, but so far it just creates compulsory automated vehicle insurance. It’s really a three-year review of the regulatory framework for the safe deployment of automated vehicles,” said Jonathan Butler, the head of automotive at law firm Geldards and a member of the Vehicle Remarketing Association (VRA) board.

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“There will be cases where someone will one day have to work out, within the body of the regulations, what they mean in real life. So, does that mean the insurer carries the can? Does it mean the manufacturer does? Does it mean the human being sitting in the car does? And if so, to what percentages?”

Given all those questions still need to be answered, it looks like the automotive industry, the government and the legal system are in for an interesting time in the years ahead.

Jack Cafrae