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UK government launches three-year legal review into self-driving cars

Just as US trials claim first pedestrian fatality

20 March 2018

They are yet to be driven in public in the United Kingdom, but self-driving cars have already hit roads in the United States. Uber have been testing autonomous vehicles on the road since 2016 and Waymo (owned by Google-parent Alphabet) recently announced it will soon launch fully driverless cars in a pilot in Phoenix, Arizona — an industry first.

Legal issues are restricting such an experience from making it to the United Kingdom, and even in America there is still (or at least until the Waymo trial) an actual person sitting behind the wheel, ready to step in if anything goes wrong. This is because the law still requires a sober, hopefully alert, person to be in ultimate control of the vehicle.

However, this person is still in the car for a reason. In March 2018 Uber had to suspend its testing of self-driving cars in Arizona after one hit and killed a pedestrian who was crossing the road. According to reports, the woman was crossing the road, without using a designated pedestrian crossing, when she was struck by the Uber vehicle.

In March 2018, before the American fatality, the UK government announced the start of a detailed three-year legal review that should help UK laws adjust for this quickly developing technology. The review, carried out by both the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission, will examine any legal obstacles to the widespread introduction of self-driving vehicles and highlight the need for regulatory reforms.

The review builds on the ambitious plans outlined by the UK government in the 2017 budget to get driverless cars onto the UK's roads by 2021.

With self-driving cars potentially operating without a driver and maybe even a steering wheel, traditional laws will need to be adjusted to reflect this change in motor vehicles.

The legal review will aim to answer key questions that need to be addressed before this technology can be more widely introduced, and will help inform the development of a regulatory framework to accommodate these vehicles.

Key issues include:

  •  determining who is the person responsible for the vehicle,
  • how will civil and criminal responsibility be allocated (to the driver or the manufacturer/designer) where there is some shared control of the human-machine interface,
  • whether new criminal offences are required to deal with new types of interference, and
  • how other road users may be impacted and how they can be protected from any risk.

Although it is not yet clear how these issues are going to be resolved, they eventually will, with Roads Minister Jesse Norman stating, "With driving technology advancing at an unprecedented rate, it is important that our laws and regulations keep pace so that the UK can remain one of the world leaders in this field."

Hopefully this review will go some way to achieving this goal, if the Uber death hasn't put pause to that too.

Written by Lara Hopkins, Trainee, London TMT Group