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Self-driving cars may have to break law, says Law Commission

Self-driving cars may have to break the rules of the road to operate safely, and the Law Commissions of England, Wales and Scotland are embarking on a consultation to seek input on how to manage this

The Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission have launched a joint public consultation on how to adapt the Highway Code to take account of self-driving cars, also known as connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs).

The consultation is seeking input around a number of legal issues that will inevitably arise when CAVs take to the UK’s roads.

Since the rules of the road were developed for humans, they are therefore often nuanced and open to interpretation, and can in some circumstances be disobeyed without penalty if the situation demands it, with the legal system turning a blind eye.

For example, said the commissions, should a CAV be allowed to mount the pavement or cross the line at a red light to allow an emergency vehicle to pass through, as a human driver would do, and how can that process be built into future CAV systems?

“Automated vehicles will have a transformative effect on how we take journeys, our standard of living and the wider economy,” said law commissioner Nicholas Paines.

“We want to hear from stakeholders and the public about how to create an environment in which this technology can flourish whilst maintaining public safety,” he added.

“The UK is in the early stages of an exciting and profound set of changes in how people, goods and services move around the country,” said roads minister Jesse Norman.

“With automated driving technology advancing rapidly, it is important that our laws and regulations keep pace so that the UK can remain a world leader in this field”
Jesse Norman, roads minister

“With automated driving technology advancing rapidly, it is important that our laws and regulations keep pace so that the UK can remain a world leader in this field. The important work launched today by the Law Commission should help to ensure that.”

This is the first of a series of planned consultations about the legal reforms that will be needed to account for CAVs, and forms part of a three-year review by both the English and Welsh, and Scottish commissions, that began in March 2018 under the auspices of the government’s Future of Mobility Grand Challenge, as set out in the Industrial Strategy.

Besides adapting some of the most fundamental rules governing road safety, the consultation will seek input on whether a dedicated government agency to monitor and investigate accidents involving CAVs might be needed, and how criminal and civil liability laws will need to be adapted to ensure clarity and certainty about who is accountable when something goes wrong.

Questions around liability will be of particular interest as CAVs begin to take to the road. It has not yet been satisfactorily established who will be sanctioned if a CAV drives in a way that would amount to a road traffic offence, whether human users should be shielded from criminal liability, and who is responsible for their fitness to take charge of a vehicle if needed – for example, if they are intoxicated.

The commissions would also like to know opinions on whether additional training for drivers of CAVs should be provided, whether CAVs should be backed by an “entity” that will take responsibility for safety and legal compliance, and whether a new safety assurance agency should be set up to monitor performance and roadworthiness testing of CAVs.

Read more about road safety and CAVs

  • People seem to be confused about the difference between autonomous and assisted driving technology, with worrying implications for road safety, says Thatcham Research.
  • Uber suspended testing of autonomous vehicles in North America earlier this year after one of its cars struck and killed a pedestrian.

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