First fatal accident involving a driverless car – should the technology slow down?

The sad news of a pedestrian fatally injured by an Uber SUV in autonomous mode has led many to question whether driverless technology is moving too fast. Uber has responded promptly, freezing its autonomous vehicle testing in Arizona, Pittsburgh and Toronto, and offering its full cooperation to investigators

Early reports indicate that the accident took place at night on a four-lane road, and it seems that video recordings from the vehicle show that it would have been difficult for any driver to take avoiding action. The test driver in the vehicle did not see the pedestrian in time to react.

The accident coincides with efforts to introduce federal legislation to speed up the introduction of self-driving technology in the US - currently the law varies from state to state. But many are concerned that the technology is not yet ready for public roads.

New rules in California to allow remote monitoring

California is pressing ahead with regulations to allow autonomous vehicles with no safety driver in the car to take to the roads. On 26 February, the State of California passed new rules that will allow the Department of Motor Vehicles to begin issuing testing permits from 2 April 2018. 

The absence of a safety driver in the car does not mean that the vehicle will be operating completely without human intervention. The rules require the involvement of a trained remote operator in two-way communication with the vehicle. The remote operator will have to continuously monitor the test vehicle and stick to the times and locations specified in the application for approval.

In-depth review in the UK

Meanwhile the UK Government has asked the Law Commissions of England & Wales, and Scotland, to take a long, hard look at what is needed to “ensure the UK remains one of the best places in the world to develop, test and drive self-driving vehicles”. The review is part of the UK's Industrial Strategy, which includes a focus on the future of mobility.

Areas of the legal landscape that are likely to need development to enable an autonomous future include:

  • who is the ‘driver'or responsible person?
  • how to allocate civil and criminal responsibility where there is some shared control in a human-machine interface
  • the role of automated vehicles within public transport networks and emerging platforms for on-demand passenger transport, car sharing and new business models providing mobility as a service
  • whether there is a need for new criminal offences to deal with novel types of conduct and interference
  • the impact on other road users and how they can be protected from risk

This is not going to be quick. The review is planned to take three years, and any recommendations will then need to be turned into law. But we can expect it to be thorough given past experience of Law Commission work.

Accidents will still happen

It is important to remember that  although autonomous vehicles offer the prospect of greatly enhanced safety, there will still be accidents. We discuss this in more detail here. What we can hope for from the technology is a reduced frequency and seriousness of accidents. And when they do occur, the collection and analysis of detailed data will enable lessons to be learned in a way that is not possible with most accidents caused by human drivers.

The law must evolve to prioritise protection to all road users – those using driverless vehicles and those around them. But this does not mean that calling a halt to carefully supervised and regulated testing is the right approach.

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