Self driving cars, the law and the nitty-gritty

Blog post posted on 09/07/19 |

Following The Law Commission’s three month consultation on automated vehicle safety assurance and legal liability which closed in February, Neil Greig, IAM RoadSmart director of policy and research, talked about what could happen in a future with self-driving vehicles and the law.

It’s reassuring to see that in one aspect in particular – that off-road traffic law – preparations are already underway on how we might cope with the advent of the fully autonomous car. 

The Law Commission of England and Scotland recently ran a major consultation and a summary of the results are now in   

The consultation was rather heavy on legalistic details, but did include a few scenarios to illustrate the legal dilemmas that driverless cars will pose.

For example; should a driverless car be allowed to ‘mount the pavement’ to avoid congestion or an incident?  In the consultation, a small majority (56%) thought that this would be acceptable to allow emergency vehicles to pass, while 52% thought it would be acceptable to avoid an accident.

However, many arguments were put that mounting the pavement at speed should never be permitted.  We responded that it could only be allowed if a full safety case was in place to justify it.

When it comes to ‘edging through pedestrians’, most respondents thought it would never be acceptable to edge through pedestrians in a way that reduced any chance of injury.

However, a few did think that without some small but credible threat it would be difficult for automated vehicles to make progress. 

IAM RoadSmart is concerned that these vehicles will be unable to detect pedestrians in a throng. Until automated car makers can prove in their safety case that their vehicles can detect humans with 100% safety, we would be concerned that ‘edging through’ is permitted.  With good research it may be perfectly possible to set design parameters for ‘edging through’ but that does seem some way off. 

The final scenario that the Law Commission asked about was whether a driverless car should ever be allowed to speed. 

On this, we were very clear: “IAM RoadSmart members are trained to adhere to speed limits and this should equally apply to all automated vehicles at all times – automated vehicles should never break the speed limit.” 

Overall the views were split, while RAC members and other motorists generally supported exceeding the speed limit, this was with small tolerances and in rare circumstances. It was great to see that most safety organisations agreed with us that speeding by a driverless car is never acceptable.

The consultation process will go on and more detailed proposals will be released in due course. 

Concepts such as ‘the user in charge’ will now be developed into detailed law.  At IAM RoadSmart we will continue to push for the inclusion of advanced driver training as a key part of the qualifications needed to be in charge of a driverless car either within the vehicle or remotely. 

Even if you can’t see the person in charge of your vehicle,  it does offer some reassurance that they will be well versed in safe driving.

By IAM RoadSmart director of policy and research, Neil Greig