UK: Driverless Vehicles: A Bumpy Road Ahead?

"Automated vehicle technology will profoundly change the way we travel, making road transport safer, smoother, and smarter. We are on the pathway to driverless cars, where fully automated vehicles will transport people and goods to their destination without any need for a driver".1

Such confident words came from the Government during the consultation on automated vehicles. But do they live up to the reality and what happens if something goes wrong? As the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill continues to progress through Parliament, we examine the potential enforcement implications of driverless cars on our roads.

Hard reality or science fiction?

Driver error accounts for over 90% of road traffic deaths. Autonomous vehicles clearly have the potential to reduce this tragic statistic. However, is the possibility of completely autonomous vehicles a reality or does it remain within the realms of science fiction?

The full details as to how driverless vehicles will be operated have yet to be confirmed. The Government aims to have self-driving vehicles on our roads by 2020 and has given the go ahead for testing on motorways and A-roads. Lorries may be the first autonomous vehicles subject to the trial on UK motorways and would be tested as "platoons" so that they move in a group. The "road train" will be controlled by a driver in the front vehicle, although the other cabs will also have drivers as a precaution.

Most recently, a consortium of British companies has unveiled a plan to test driverless cars on UK roads and motorways in 2019. The cars will communicate with each other about any hazards and should operate with almost full autonomy.

However, importantly the Department for Transport has confirmed that such tests will be restricted to vehicles with a human driver present, should the need to take control arise

Who is the driver?

Under road traffic legislation, namely the Road Traffic Act 1988, the key issue when determining issues of criminal liability is who the driver is, i.e. "who was in control of the vehicle"?

This deceptively simple question is made infinitely more complicated in the case of driverless vehicles, which raise a myriad of tough legal issues, including:

  • Will road traffic legislation be amended to incorporate corporate offences? Unless the legislation is revisited to clarify the question of "driver" control, then under current legislation the physical human driver will remain responsible.
  • As yet, there is no indication from the manufacturers of such vehicles that they are willing to assume criminal responsibility when an incident occurs. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Google, Uber and other manufacturers would willingly open themselves up to potential criminal responsibility but in reality can they avoid this?
  • Will it be possible to truly distinguish between those cases where the vehicle is driving itself and where the driver retains some element of control? Should a "driver" of an autonomous car be guilty of something that was ultimately being controlled by the software and mechanics of that vehicle? What if the human driver cannot intervene effectively if something goes wrong, for example, because they are over the drink-drive limit or have fallen unconscious?
  • Compare, for example, a common situation where a car is engaged in "automatic" cruise control, allowing the driver to maintain a constant speed, for example 70mph on a motorway. In scenarios where the driver is subsequently caught speeding, it is currently no defence for them to point to the cruise control and blame that. Will this have to change for automated vehicles?
  • Public ownership or private fleet ownership by manufacturers or specialist corporates is likely to become the norm and this has a series of consequences. Who will take over responsibility for repair and maintenance? Who is responsible when an accident arises as a result of a mechanical fault?

At this stage, the plethora of questions that arise remain unanswered but clear direction will be needed if this potentially revolutionary development is to succeed.

False sense of security

Supporters of driverless vehicles say such concerns may actually be groundless. The sophisticated, in-built technology of an autonomous vehicle will mean that such vehicles will know where they are, what is around them and which hazards to plan for, better than any human driver could ever hope to accomplish.

But technology is only as good as the person programming or operating it and it is not difficult to envisage potential flaws in the system or issues which have not been accounted for. It will also never be possible to completely eliminate risks generated by third parties, such as cyclists undertaking vehicles, pedestrians stepping out onto the road, etc.

Motorists should not be lulled into a false sense of security believing they can hand over control of a vehicle to a "robot" and absolve themselves of criminal liability if something goes wrong.

At such an early stage in development, the technology currently raises more questions than it answers. With the challenge of vehicle automation now upon us, will the criminal law be able to rise to that challenge?


1 Government response to Consultation on proposals to support Advanced Driver Assistance Systems and Automated Vehicles

Driverless Vehicles: A Bumpy Road Ahead?

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