Automated Vehicles, Friend or Foe?

Published on 23 Nov 2022

No seriously, the future is closer than you think!

Automatic self-driving cars are slowly increasing in numbers; there may be a day when we live in a world where cars which drive themselves will become the norm. However, questions like ‘how might this influence the future of civil liability?’ are being considered.

The Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission released their final joint report on automated vehicles in January 2022. The report, 'Automated Vehicles', spans issues related to the safe and responsible introduction of automated vehicles (AVs) in the UK (see full report here).

There are proposals to remove blame from the human in the car. The human will be labelled as a 'user in charge' (UIC). Once the self-driving feature is engaged on an automatic car, the driver becomes a 'user in charge' who has immunity from driving-related offences. UIC immunity from any criminal offence or civil penalty is central to the report's recommendations. The Commissions suggest the Automated Driving System (ADS) should not be capable of operating outside its intended domain, and the UIC would not be immune if they have overridden or altered the system to engage when it is not designed to, or if they deliberately cause the ADS to malfunction.

You, as the UIC would still be responsible for non-dynamic tasks such as insurance, maintenance, parking, reporting accidents and ensuring children wear seatbelts.(1)

Definition of ‘self-driving’?

The Commissions' report has proposed that a 'self-driving' vehicle is responsible for the dynamic driving task, such as how the car drives and operates.

Under the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 (AEVA 2018) (2) it defines a vehicle as 'driving itself' (3) if it is ‘operating in a mode in which it is not being controlled, and does not need to be monitored by an individual' (4). Vehicle users may not be expected to 'drive' the car or 'monitor' it, but they are expected to respond promptly and effectively to transition demands.

In case of emergency, the 'transition demand' system in the vehicle would alert the UIC with multisensory signals, giving them enough time to take back control and regain situational awareness. Ideally this would happen within 10 seconds, although this period remains under review. Once the transition demand is issued and accepted, the 'handover' is completed from vehicle to UIC, the UIC becomes the 'driver' who would then be subject to the usual responsibilities of a human driver, measured against a reasonable and competent standard. Mitigation against risk of injury or damage if the UIC fails to take over when requested would need to be assessed by the regulatory body, but in a worst-case scenario, the vehicle should be able to come to a 'controlled stop' in lane.

What could change?

To account for the deployment of this new technology, the Highway Code and accompanying legal framework will need to be amended to determine the relevance of certain rules. For example, the rules regarding stopping distances and time, the computer is programmed to always take these into account. Further, the need for mirror-signal-manoeuvre to be drilled into every student driver when cars of the future will do this for you. It is thought that most of the Highway Code may become redundant, as cars will be able to read road signs and perform actions that humans are taught to do. The Commission has proposed to place responsibilities with the manufacturers, users in charge and licenced fleet operators (5).

What are people’s views?

There are still differing opinions surrounding autonomous vehicles. Many welcome the idea, as motoring technology has already come a long way in assisting drivers to avoid accidents with the introduction of cameras, blind spot indicators, driver alerts, lane assist, collision assist etc.

There are still several others who remain against driverless cars and would prefer to trust their safety to human drivers rather than new technology. It will take some time for people to adapt, but AVs are definitely a positive step forward in driver safety. Although, with society advancing in this way it is likely to attract cyber criminals, therefore the security of such vehicles is paramount.

If you have been accused of committing a motoring offence, or have been involved in a road traffic accident, we at Lanyon Bowdler can assist with our Personal Injury Department.

  1. Highway code
  3. Section 8(1) of the AEVA 2018
  4. Section 8(1) of the AEVA 2018
  5. BBC News Website:
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