Driverless cars legal review – only one step on the journey

The UK government has reported on its major review of the legal framework for the next stage for driverless cars. In The Pathway to Driverless Cars the Department for Transport sets out government thinking on what needs to change to support testing soon to be rolled out on British roads, and to pave the way for increasing autonomy into the future.

The review looks across the existing legal scene, both internationally and at home, and concludes that little more than a light touch Code of Practice will be sufficient to support current testing plans. The UK will not impose a requirement for a certificate or permit, or an insurance bond, before testing can begin, and will not restrict testing to specified locations.

The government recognises, however, that the kind of testing envisaged will require the presence of a qualified and competent driver, who will ‘be responsible for ensuring the safe operation of the vehicle at all times whether it is in ‘manual' or ‘automated' mode'. The Code of Practice currently proposed does not address the issues presented by the transition to full autonomy as the technology in this area moves on.This will require law-making at both national and international level.

In our comments to government as part of the consultation process, we emphasised the need to address full autonomy at an early stage. While offering a testing regime as currently proposed will enable the technology to move on to some extent, it does not address the need to define what ‘critical event control' will be acceptable in a fully autonomous vehicle, where the driver is ‘out of the loop', or no driver is present at all. Full autonomy will require a system that can respond in a split second to an emergency. Manufacturers need to know what kind of standards they will have to meet in order to sell a car that can deal with the unexpected on its own.

And in addressing the international Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, and the currently proposed amendments to it, the review says:

'The Vienna Convention is not considered an obstacle in the UK. The UK has signed but not ratified the convention and testing is consistent with proper driver control.'

This dodges two questions-

  1. what will be needed to progress to full autonomy? and
  2. how will the UK comply with the requirement for a driver in the earlier Geneva Convention?

The planned draft Code of Practice is promised within a month.

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