Driverless cars could operate in England and Wales without the need for parliament to pass new laws, the government’s law reform advisers say in a report published today.
The Law Commission is advising ministers that remotely-operated vehicles could be licensed, in the short term, under secondary legislation.
A trial of driverless cars is already under way in Milton Keynes. If all goes according to plan, customers will be able to hire a car using an app and then have it delivered to wherever they happen to be. Until the law is changed, though, there must be a “safety driver” on board to supervise each delivery.
However, these are not autonomous vehicles. They can’t find their way by themselves around the seemingly endless roundabouts of Milton Keynes. Instead, they are remotely controlled by an operator in a central location using cameras, sensors, screens, a steering wheel and foot controls — a bit like flightless drones.
If ministers accept the proposals outlined today, car-hire companies will be able to deliver vehicles to customers without having to find a way of transporting the delivery driver back to base each time. Customers would drive the vehicles in the normal way but they would no longer have to return them to a specified location, as at present.
In more than 130 pages of advice, the Law Commission says that robust regulation is required to ensure that trials can take place safely. It begins by defining a remote driver as — broadly speaking — an individual who cannot see a vehicle (except on a video screen) but who can steer it, control its speed and stop it in an emergency.
The commission then suggests that ministers could approve a new construction and use regulation. This would prohibit remote driving unless an operating organisation had obtained what’s called a vehicle special order from the government’s Vehicle Certification Agency. The individual operator, effectively the driver, would have to control the vehicle from somewhere in England and Wales — or Scotland if the arrangements were extended by the UK government to the whole of Great Britain.
In the long term, though, new primary legislation would be needed. The Law Commission recommends that every vehicle driven remotely should be overseen by a licensed organisation.
Accidents will happen
Remote vehicles are controlled using wireless networks. But what would happen if an accident was caused by a momentary loss of connectivity — or even a cyberattack? How could the courts decide whether an accident was caused by a careless operator or an unsafe work environment?
To avoid endless legal challenges the Law Commission recommends that organisations responsible for operating remote vehicles should carry no-fault insurance against civil claims.
A remote driver could also be charged with a criminal offence unless a competent and careful driver in the remote driver’s position would not have been aware of the circumstances giving rise to liability; or would not have avoided commission of the offence.
Commenting on the advice paper, Nicholas Paines KC, the commissioner responsible for public law, said:
Remote driving is an exciting technology, but before we see remotely operated cars on UK roads, we must address safety concerns through strong regulation.
Our advice concludes that in the immediate term, the government would be able to address some gaps in the law around remote driving using existing powers, while also providing a path for companies to use the technology lawfully provided that their systems are safe. In the longer term, it could set up a full system of remote driving regulation.
Regulations must respond to other fundamental concerns around security threats and liability in the event of an accident. Our advice paper sets out a roadmap for how the government can address these problems, whilst also encouraging companies to innovate.
Jesse Norman, a transport minister, said:
Remote driving is already being successfully used off-road in several industries and has huge potential to provide new services and safety features for road vehicles.
The government needs to ensure that safety is at the forefront of the use of any new technology, and the Department [for Transport] will carefully consider the Law Commission’s recommendations.
Readers who do not want to navigate the full 134-page advice at the outset can start with a 20-page summary, a four-page overview or a single-page press release.
I am a non-executive member of the Law Commission board but I have no responsibility for its recommendations or reports.
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I have long, long fretted over the use- or abuse- of parliamentary processes with the species of primary legislation which through what might be termed “enabling Acts” frees up the government of the day to sneak through Parliament provisions for drastic and potentially dangerous or at the very best unchallenged provisions such as these in the face of the likes of Nicholas Paine,KC,’s reasoned and more cautious approaches. I was scarcely alone since for a long time and as I believe contemporaneously the Law Society has shared and voiced those same concerns.
Whilst the “Johnsonian” model of sidestepping due scrutiny may SO FAR be the prime and shabbiest example it would be tempting for ANY government to avoid what it might collectively see as a frustrating brake applied on its - perhaps self serving and funder gratifying - programme.
Would the inevitable, even if only occasional, accidents be viewed as necessary collateral damage and, to use that sinister phrase of Lamont’s, “a price worth paying”?
I think the issue of getting drivers back to base was solved a long time ago by those “we drive you home in your own car” services you see advertised in bars…