The UK Government recently published the outcome of its April 2021 consultation concerning ‘Rules on the safe use of automated vehicles’. The Consultation focused on the regulation necessary to enable Automatic Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS), the next wave of self-driving technology, to be used safely in the UK.
To facilitate this, the Consultation sought views on draft text (available here) to be included in an updated version of the Highway Code, which contains the “rules of the road” for British drivers. Based on the responses received, the UK Government has considerably revised and updated that proposed text (available here), which is now entitled “Self-driving vehicles”.
This is the latest interim stage of the UK Government’s drive to update automotive and highway regulation to regulate self-driving vehicles by 2025, and follows the Joint Report published by the Law Commissions of England, Wales and Scotland on 26 January 2022. You can read our analysis of their suggestions here.
Responses to the Consultation
The Consultation asked respondents to comment on whether they thought that the Consultation Text achieved the aim of safely introducing ALKS. In general, most responses focussed on the broad topics of:
- the extent of drivers’ responsibilities, including which specific behaviours are permitted and when;
- the meaning of the requirement to be ‘ready and vigilant’ for any required transition procedure from self-driving to driver-controlled;
- the difference between ‘self-driving’ systems and ‘assisted driving’ systems; and
- whether ALKS is sophisticated enough to enable a vehicle to be considered ‘automated’ under the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018, given that the system has certain limitations including not being able to read UK traffic signage.
UK Government Response
The most eye-catching proposal in the Government response, and the one which has gathered most media attention, is the express permission for drivers of ALKS vehicles to watch T.V. and other non-driving related materials on built in screens whilst the car is in motion, provided that the vehicle is listed as an ‘automated vehicle’ and is driving itself. The Government expects that vehicles with ALKS will meet the criteria to be listed as ‘automated’ but has stressed that decisions will be taken on a case-by-case basis. Media played whilst in motion would also be required to cut out if the vehicle requests the driver to retake control (with the revised Highway Code observing that the vehicle will provide ‘enough warning to do this safely’). This is clearly a significant departure from current vehicle regulations, and one which could well attract considerable attention should road traffic accidents occur when drivers are watching non-driving related media whilst in motion. At present, liability for such an accident would fall on the driver and their insurer. However, to accompany the introduction of self-driving technology, the January 2022 Joint Report proposed that in these situations drivers would be given immunity from responsibility and liability.
Further, in light of the consultation responses, the UK Government has suggested updates to the Highway Code to clearly distinguish ‘self-driving’ vehicles from vehicles with ‘assisted driving’ features (which ‘can do some of the driving, but [where] the driver still needs to be responsible for driving at all times.’). Additionally, ‘self-driving’, a term thought to be better understood by members of the public, will now be used to refer to ‘automated vehicles’ as defined in the 2018 Act. The Government has suggested that this approach will alleviate some confusion that was evident in consultation responses about the terminology used in this area.
The Government’s proposed revised text also provides examples of responsibilities which drivers must continue to meet, even when ALKS are employed. These include that they must be within drink-drive limits and not under the influence of drugs (examples of the general requirement to be ‘fit to drive’), keep their car legally road worthy and not use hand-held electronic devices.
The revised version of the Code was laid before both Houses of Parliament on 25 April and will remain there for consideration for the required 40-day period. Assuming that Parliament make no substantive changes, the Department for Transport anticipate that the new Code will be available by Autumn 2022.