Self-driving cars: Calls to make companies liable for accidents not drivers

·3-min read
Self-driving cars: Calls to make companies liable for accidents not drivers
Self-driving car users should have immunity from offences, according to a new report. Photo: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

People in a self-driving car should not be responsible for dangerous driving, accidents, speeding and jumping red lights, legal watchdogs have proposed.

A report released on Wednesday from law commissioners covering England, Wales and Scotland is calling for parliament to regulate vehicles that can drive themselves.

In these cars, the driver should be redefined as a "user-in-charge", with very different legal responsibilities, the report found. If anything goes wrong, the company behind the driving system would be responsible, rather than the driver.

However, whoever is in the driver's seat should still be responsible for things like carrying insurance, checking loads and ensuring that children wore seat belts, the report said. They would also have to remain within the drink-drive limit.

“While a vehicle is driving itself, we do not think that a human should be required to respond to events in the absence of a transition demand (a requirement for the driver to take control),” the report found.

“It is unrealistic to expect someone who is not paying attention to the road to deal with (for example) a tyre blow-out or a closed road sign. Even hearing ambulance sirens will be difficult for those with a hearing impairment or listening to loud music.”

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Still, the report warned there needed to be a “clear distinction” between self-driving features and those that must assist road users to meet the standards.

In April 2021 the Department for Transport announced hands-free driving in vehicles with lane-keeping technology would be allowed on congested motorways at speeds of up to 37mph.

"The development of self-driving will revolutionise travel in the UK and around the world. The societal benefits are huge — from improving mobility to reducing congestion and ultimately making our roads safer," Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer at Thatcham Research, which was involved in the consultation, told Yahoo Finance UK.

"The Law Commission report moves us forward on the road to automation by providing much needed clarity and legal guidance to realise these benefits. However, the transition from driver assistance to higher levels of automation comes with significant risk — and it’s vital that drivers understand both the limitations of the first iterations of the technology and their legal obligations when using a vehicle with self-driving capability.

"This is why the Law Commission report is so important: it offers clarity and draws a clear line between vehicles with current driver assistance technology and those where the driver can delegate the driving task."

AA president Edmund King said: "While many technological elements of automation or automatic lane-keeping systems will bring in safety benefits, we should not be encouraging drivers to take their hands off the wheel until these systems are regulated and fail-safe."

Louis Rix, co-founder of car finance platform CarFinance 247, said: “It’s important to remember that road users must take responsibility for any offences that take place while driving. To remove legal responsibility from drivers would be to betray the laws of the road, which keep us all safe."

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Transport minister Trudy Harrison said the introduction and development of self-driving vehicles in the UK "has the potential to revolutionise travel, making everyday journeys safer, easier and greener".

"This government has been encouraging development and deployment of these technologies to understand their benefits," she said.

"However, we must ensure we have the right regulations in place, based upon safety and accountability, in order to build public confidence."

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