The technology to make a car drive by itself is relatively simple compared with the moral, ethical, and legal questions raised when you give a computer control over a couple of tonnes of moving steel. That in itself doesn't mean there's anything fundamentally wrong with the concept of driverless cars. Itâ€™s just a new way of thinking about cars that everyone will slowly get used to as time progresses.
Letâ€™s face it, when Stephenson built the Rocket some people were worried that passengers would suffocate to death because they would be unable to breathe at the incredible speed of 30mph. They were wrong, nobody died, and trains work perfectlyâ€¦..apart from the delays, overcrowding, cancellations, overpriced cardboard sandwiches, brown water that allegedly contains coffeeâ€¦..not that any of these are relevant to self-driving cars.
What is relevant is the Law Commissionâ€™s recent report recommending the introduction of a new Automated Vehicles Act to ensure the safe adoption of vehicles with self-driving capability.
Last year, the Department for Transport gave the green light to automated lane-keeping systems (ALKS), the first type of hands-free driving to be legalised in the UK. Itâ€™s nowhere near a fully autonomous system but itâ€™s the first step, hence why the law commissions were asked in 2018 to come up with a series of reports on the legal framework for automated vehicles and their use on public roads.
According to the proposals from the law commissions for England and Wales, and Scotland, human drivers should not be legally accountable for road safety in the era of autonomous cars and the driver should be redefined as a "user-in-charge". If anything goes wrong, the company behind the driving system would be responsible, rather than the driver.
A new definition of whether a vehicle qualifies as self-driving is also recommended. There should be no sliding scale of driverless capabilities - a car is either autonomous or it isnâ€™t - and if any sort of monitoring is required - in extreme weather conditions, for example - it should not be considered autonomous and current driving rules should still apply. Until this is properly defined carmakers must be absolutely clear about the difference between self-drive and driver-assist features.
The full reportâ€™s recommendations suggest that a â€œuser-in-chargeâ€ shouldnâ€™t be prosecuted for offences such as dangerous driving, speeding, or running a red light, but remains responsible for other tasks, including insurance and checking people are wearing seatbelts. Data to understand fault and liability following a collision must also be easily accessible, and there would be sanctions for carmakers who fail to reveal how their systems work. Some vehicles may also be allowed to drive themselves with no-one in the driving seat and a licensed operator responsible for overseeing the journey, but itâ€™s more likely thatâ€™s a question for the future of autonomous public transport rather than individual car owners.
Weâ€™re likely to see the first real signs of self-driving cars on UK roads in the next 12 months, so in reality these recommendations are likely to form the basic framework of changes to the driving laws over the next year or so.
Transport Minister Trudy Harrison said the government would "fully consider" the recommendations, and the Scottish and Welsh governments will also decide whether to introduce legislation. What is clear is that the legal responsibility will shift emphasis away from the human element and place it firmly in the hands of the carmakers.
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