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  • Changing the law for autonomous vehicles

    With the Queen recently green lighting a Bill to ensure the UK becomes a leader in the development of self-driving cars, what was once science fiction could soon be a reality. The Bill intends to limit the rules and regulations surrounding new technology to allow cars and other vehicles to be driven by on-board computers, as well as to adapt current legislation to take liability issues into account. Nick Terry, a partner at Burton Copeland LLP Solicitors, explains why adapting the current law governing motor vehicles may not be enough to cater for the nuances of driverless cars and suggests what should be done to ensure autonomous vehicles are appropriately covered from a legal perspective to protect businesses.
    Current legislation is out-dated
    In recent years, new vehicles such as the segway and hoverboard have raised doubt in terms of their legality and have been included in legislation that was implemented well before these vehicles were introduced to the market.
    Nick explains: “These new technologies are regulated by the Highways Act 1835 that dictates that ‘any horse, ass, sheep, mule, swine, cattle or carriage of any description’ cannot be used on footpaths. I very much doubt that Parliament in 1835 considered segways and hoverboards when they brought in this legislation, but it would seem that ‘carriage of any description’ includes these modern vehicles.”
    So how should the law be changed to accommodate for autonomous vehicles?
    There already exists multiple Acts of Parliament governing drivers and how they can behave on the roads. However, autonomous vehicles raise questions as to whether an occupant would be considered as a driver or passenger.

    What is driving?
    Driving is not an easily classified activity due to the many subjective interpretations of it. Although it might be clear that an occupant is driving when they are controlling the movement and direction of a vehicle, this definition must fall in line with the original meaning of the word ‘driving’ in the English language.
    Nick suggests: “It’s not impossible to conceive that a person could be ‘driving’ by simply setting a destination in a navigation system and hitting ‘go’ because, in essence, you are controlling the movement and direction as the law requires. Furthermore, if a vehicle can switch from automatic to manual, an argument could be raised to whether occupants are considered to be ‘in charge’ because of her ability to take over control at any given time.
    “To ensure the law is developed in the correct way, a proactive approach needs to be taken to develop legislation. The reactive approach we have seen recently with the segway and hoverboard being considered as a ‘carriage’ under the Highways Act 1835 could stifle the advancement of these vehicles, having a negative impact on the UK’s development.”

    Responsibility for accidents
    To cater for accidents involving driverless cars, the law needs to clearly lay out who is liable should a collision happen because there are many parties who could potentially be held accountable. For instance, if software malfunctioning caused the crash, is it the fault of the employee using the car or the software manufacturers?
    Nick explains: “In this instance, responsibility lies with the software manufacturer as current product liability legislation places them as responsible for defective products. However, employers will be expected to keep the software up to date, meaning insurance policies will need to be introduced to reflect this. Likewise, if the vehicle allows for some manual control.”

    Do we need to pay attention?
    For many businesses that use vehicles, roles usually involve the delivery of goods, meaning someone will need to be present to load or unload a vehicle. Whether or not they have to pay attention while the vehicle is moving - if they can use a mobile phone, laptop or another mobile device, for example - depends on whether or not they will have to take over control of the vehicle at any point.
    If manual driving is required at any point, they need to be capable of doing this at any point while the vehicle is moving.

    Will driving licences matter?
    Driverless cars are just that - a car without a driver - so does this mean that delivery drivers, bus drivers and any other employees in a role that involves a vehicle can be employed without a licence? “Again, this depends on whether or not the vehicle has a self-drive mode,” Nick explains. “If there is a manual mode, then a licenced driver would need to be present. However, instead of hiring people qualified in driving, employers may need to recruit workers who are qualified in autonomous software."

    Driverless cars are set to revolutionise the motoring industry. They aim to offer a safer, more productive, more cost-effective and environmentally friendly method of transportation. However, it’s important for companies to know who is legally responsible when something goes wrong, as this can have a hugely detrimental impact on their business.