The Automated Vehicles Bill was among the legislative proposals introduced in the King’s Speech on November 8, 2023, at the state opening of Parliament. The bill aims to encourage the safe development of self-driving vehicle technology, provide legal clarity and certainty when the technology is used on the road, and help boost the economy for automated vehicles. If enacted, the bill would be “one of the most comprehensive legal frameworks of its kind anywhere in the world for self-driving vehicles.”
The bill set outs a regulatory regime for self-driving vehicles that is based on recommendations made by the Law Commission in its Automated Vehicles report. It further sets out a statement of safety principles that detail the expectations for safety features of self-driving vehicles. The bill would also amend the existing vehicle type approval process to include a technical assessment for the safety and cyber security of self-driving vehicle automated technology.
The bill sets out a safety framework that includes a threshold for the safety of self-driving vehicles and provides legal certainty regarding the liability of automated vehicle users. It would also establish a self-driving test to identify vehicles that do not require an individual in the driver’s seat to monitor the road or the behavior of the vehicle. When a vehicle passes the self-driving test, liability would move from the user in charge of the vehicle to the self-driving vehicle. Notably, clause 46 of the bill defines an individual as a “user-in-charge” of a vehicle where
- the vehicle is an authorised automated vehicle with an authorised user-in-charge feature,
- that feature is engaged, and
- the individual is in, and in position to exercise control of, the vehicle, but is not controlling it.
The bill specifically provides that the user-in-charge must be qualified and fit to drive but can claim immunity for any serious road traffic offenses that arise from the actions of the vehicle when the self-driving feature was operational and that are not a result of the individuals conduct “after ceasing to be the user-in-charge falling below the standard that could reasonably be expected of a careful and competent driver in the circumstances.”
The bill further sets out a legal framework for automated vehicles that do not require an individual to be in charge of the vehicle at any point of the journey, which are referred to as “no user-in-charge vehicles.” These vehicles require oversight from a licensed operator, which the explanatory notes state is a role similar to that of a bus operator.
An in-use regulatory plan would be provided for by the bill, which means those responsible for self-driving systems would be accountable for any failures that occur when the vehicle is in use. The bill would require regulatory bodies to be provided with certain information about the self-driving systems, and it establishes for those responsible for self-driving systems the offenses of withholding information or providing false information that is relevant to vehicle safety. The offense becomes aggravated if it causes death or serious injury. The bill also provides investigative powers for bodies that are regulated under it, along with powers to impose civil sanctions, such as compliance and redress notices, along with monetary penalties.
To help provide consumer protection, the bill sets out a regulatory framework to help provide clear marketing, including providing the power for regulations to be introduced to set out specific terminology and symbols that can be used only to market authorized self-driving vehicles. Any improper use of these symbols or terminology would be a criminal offense.
Clare Feikert-Ahalt, Law Library of Congress
December 6, 2023
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