UK consults on rules for self-driving cars

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The UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) has announced that a form of self-driving technology could be lawful on UK roads for the first time by the end of 2021. The technology enables drivers to hand over control of the vehicle to an automated system that keeps the vehicle in its lane, monitors its speed and controls its movements, without the driver needing to take any action until prompted by the vehicle to resume driving control. The DfT has now launched a consultation seeking views on changes to wording in The Highway Code to clarify the legal responsibility between the driver and the vehicle for the safety of the vehicle when the automated system is engaged. The consultation closes on 28 May 2021.

The August 2020 call for evidence

The current consultation follows a previous call for evidence, which was launched in August 2020, in relation to the Automated Lane Keeping System (“ALKS”) technology, an automated system that takes over control of a vehicle at low speeds. The 2020 call for evidence asked what role The Highway Code could play in clarifying to drivers their responsibilities in relation to the ALKS system, which would be limited to speeds of up to 37mph on motorways in the UK.

The current consultation

The current consultation proposes the addition of a new section to The Highway Code, which would set out the expectations for users of automated vehicles, such as those fitted with ALKS. The new proposed section would distinguish between automated vehicles and vehicles fitted with assisted driving features (like cruise control and lane-keeping assistance). For drivers using vehicles with assisted driving features, the driver remains responsible for driving and must stay in control of the vehicle at all times while the system is engaged.  Under the proposed new section of the Highway Code, drivers of automated vehicles fitted with ALKS would not be responsible for control of the vehicle while the system is engaged but would be required to resume control when prompted by the vehicle.

The proposed new section of the Highway Code states:

While an automated vehicle is driving itself, you are not responsible for how it drives, and you do not need to pay attention to the road. But you must follow the manufacturer’s instructions about when it is appropriate to engage the self-driving function.

If the vehicle is designed to require you to resume driving after being prompted to, while the vehicle is driving itself, you MUST remain in a position to be able to take control. For example, you should not move out of the driving seat. You should not be so distracted that you cannot take back control when prompted by the vehicle.

Next steps

The DfT has asked respondents to provide their views on the proposed wording and whether it achieves the stated aim of ensuring drivers understand what they can and cannot do in an automated vehicle. It has also asked whether respondents have any concerns about the impacts of the proposed changes to the Highway Code.

The consultation will close on 28 May 2021, after which the Government will prepare a summary of responses by summer 2021 with the aim of laying amendments to The Highway Code in Parliament by the end of 2021. Businesses interested in the implications of the changes, such as vehicle manufacturers and those in the insurance sector, should consider responding to the consultation now.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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