What Does the Vehicle Technology & Aviation Bill Mean for Self-Driving Cars?

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Alistair Kinley, Director of Policy & Government Affairs and partner at BLM, delves into the Government’s new Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill – how does the latest legislation clarify the role of driverless technology on British roads, and what are the key questions that still surround the topic?

We won’t be rolling out of bed and straight into our completely driverless car anytime soon, but advanced driver assistance technology (ADAS) will be commonplace by 2020. Manufacturers will then launch vehicles able to travel unsupervised using automated driving technology (ADT) for extended periods in defined situations (like on a motorway). By 2025 a significant percentage of private and commercial vehicles will spend part of each day responsible for themselves and their passengers.

ADAS is already in operation in many cars, covering emergency braking; cruise control; lane assistance; and self-parking. In time, they will become more sophisticated, able to deal with more complex situations, eventually controlling a vehicle to the point where they become ADT. The UK Government’s aim with the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill is to attempt to make the transition to ADAS and then to ADT vehicles as smooth as possible.

It is clear from discussions between Government and stakeholders that underpinning the task of legislating for ADAS and ADT were three essentials: –

  1. Insurance that provides protection for all road users and promotes uptake.
  1. Laws that can cope with continuous technological developments.
  1. Drivers who understand the difference between ADAS and ADT.

The UK has long been heading towards a driverless road network and, in February this year, took another leap forward – most significantly perhaps for the insurance industry – when the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill was published by government.

Is this legislation a window into one possible future of cities full of driverless cars, integrated “hyperways” and robotic delivery drones? Probably not – or not yet – but what has come a little closer with the Bill is a clear statement from the government about how people injured by automated vehicles (AVs) will be protected once the technology is approved for use on UK roads.

There will be a ‘single insurer’ approach, with the insurer of the AV becoming something of a ‘proxy defendant’ (our term) for the vehicle manufacturer. This means that injured drivers – or perhaps they should now be referred to as ‘passengers’ – and other road users can continue to claim against a motor insurer and will not face having to make potentially complex product liability claims against vehicle manufacturers. This new legal regime is to be completed by giving the insurer a right of recovery against the manufacturer.

The adoption of a single insurer model here is something of a change of direction from the government which, in consultation last year, seemed to suggest that drivers would be expected to buy a clumsy combination of compulsory motor insurance and top-up product liability cover.

Of course there’s a lot of leg work still be to done around other areas of regulation and on testing the tech before we can consider sending even an autonomous mobility scooter out on UK roads, let alone interconnected fleets of AVs vehicles capable of sharing vast amounts of data with each another and with the highway infrastructure.

The challenge presented by the need for data is huge, considering the practical uses of autonomous vehicles, data protection generally and the legal consequences of an accident.  Accordingly, commercial operators will find they have extended duties of care regarding training, security of personal data and disclosure.

Also, although potential interconnectivity of infrastructures and vehicles may ease congestion and reduce accidents, even a temporary failure of the communications network could see significant liability accrue in all directions. Businesses obviously will be highly dependent upon reliable data channels for operations and employee drivers will need to be trained to deal with data failures, even if they are rare. Businesses providing communication channels will themselves be at risk of damages claims too.

Key issues such as how, when and what sort of AV functionality is approved by Minsters for use on the roads are critical and are referenced in the Bill. Some serious thought also needs to be given to protecting authorised AV technologies against opportunistic or even terrorist hacks.

These matters aside, the new Bill offers an initial and workable vision of the future law applying to accidents involving AVs. Will it be a safer future? Hopefully so – surely the point of legislating to allow drivers to use expensive AV technologies is not just to free up time and reduce traffic congestion but to lower overall risks so that all of society benefits? As a force for positive change, such involvement will shape the public’s future trust in autonomous technology.

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