Major legal reforms required for driverless vehicle era

Human drivers should not be legally liable for road safety in the age of autonomous automobiles, a paper suggests. (driverless)

In these automobiles, the driver should be recast as a “user-in-charge”, with radically different legal obligations, according to the law commissioners for England and Wales, and Scotland.

If something goes wrong, the corporation behind the driving system would be accountable, rather than the driver.

And a new system should specify whether a car qualifies as self-driving.

In the meanwhile, carmakers must be quite explicit about the distinction between self-drive and driver-assist functions.

There should be no sliding spectrum of driverless capabilities – a vehicle is either autonomous or not.

And if any form of monitoring is necessary – in adverse weather conditions, for example – it should not be deemed autonomous, and conventional driving standards should apply.

Dangerous driving

The law commissions were requested in 2018 to come up with a set of papers on the legislative framework for autonomous cars and their usage on public roads.

In this final report, their recommendations include:

  • a user-in-charge cannot be prosecuted for offenses arising directly from the driving task, such as dangerous driving, speeding, or running a red light, but remains responsible for other tasks, including insurance and checking people are wearing seatbelts
  • some vehicles may be allowed to drive themselves with no one in the driving seat and a licensed operator responsible for overseeing the journey
  • data to understand fault and liability following a collision must be accessible
  • sanctions for carmakers who fail to reveal how their systems work

Transport Minister Trudy Harrison said the government will “fully examine” the proposals.

The Scottish and Welsh governments will also decide whether to enact laws.

Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer at Thatcham Research, which was involved in the consultation, said: “We applaud the recommendations that compel carmakers to use appropriate terminology when marketing these systems, to prevent motorists from becoming convinced that their car is fully self-driving when it is not.

“In the next 12 months, we’re likely to see the first versions of self-driving features on automobiles in the UK.(driverless)

“It’s crucial that the Law Commission study stresses the driver’s legal responsibility and how they must recognize that their car is not yet completely self-driving”

Last year, the Department for Transport gave the green light to automatic lane-keeping systems (ALKS), the first sort of hands-free driving to be legalized in the UK.

Drivers using ALKS will not need to monitor the road or keep their hands on the wheel but must be vigilant and be prepared to take control within 10 seconds when asked by the system.

Video game

Tesla, one of the main firms researching driverless vehicles, has faced a storm of criticism about its marketing of Autopilot, which is comparable to ALKS and deemed level two on the five recognized levels of self-driving cars.

Last week, Californian prosecutors filed two counts of vehicular manslaughter against the driver of a Tesla who went through a red light, while using Autopilot, hitting another car and killing two people – the first time someone has been charged with manslaughter when using a partially automated driving system.

Previously in the US, a motorist was murdered whilst playing a video game while utilizing Autopilot.

And in 2018, a UK citizen was prohibited from driving after hopping into the passenger seat of his Tesla on the freeway.

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