Driverless Cars and Legal Reforms – One Step Closer?
In 2022 the Law Commission was asked to clarify the current legal status of remote driving and consider possible reforms. The request came from the UK Government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) and the International Vehicle Standards team at the Department for Transport.
This work built on the Law Commission’s work in the field of automated vehicles since 2018.
Trials of autonomous vehicles have taken place in Oxford and Milton Keynes, although both were very limited in scope and tightly controlled.
The Law Commission has concluded that the current law is unsatisfactory: remote driving is in a legal grey area. It is neither prohibited nor expressly allowed. This uncertainty makes it harder to put safeguards in place to ensure any remote driving is conducted safely. Conversely it can hinder innovation and worthwhile projects which could benefit society.
The report addresses the complex issues of criminal and civil liability, and concludes:
'...while remote drivers should be prosecuted for the same crimes as in-vehicle drivers, they should not be liable for any problems beyond their control, such as those due to connectivity issues or faulty remote driving equipment. Remote driving companies should instead be subject to regulatory sanctions and in serious cases, prosecution. Victims of road incidents caused by remote driving should receive no-fault compensation.'
Individual drivers face considerable criminal liability – ranging from causing death by dangerous driving, through careless driving, to a wide range of strict liability offences.
This has the potential to be unfair to remote drivers. It is clearly right that a remote driver should face prosecution for driving under the influence of drink or drugs, or for behaving negligently. However, a remote driver might have little control over problems caused by failures of connectivity, broken sensors or poor workstation design.
The Law Commission stated:
'In our view, responsibility for maintaining safety in areas beyond the driver’s knowledge or control should lie with the organisation, not the individual. We have concluded that a beyond line-of-sight remote driver acting for a company licensed to deploy remote drivers should be given a new statutory defence where their behaviour did not fall below the standard of a competent and careful driver placed in the same circumstances.'
Despite the apparent excitement about this new technology, it is clear from this latest report that a comprehensive framework is many years away and will most likely require international consensus to make products viable across markets and protect consumers and the public.
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