In the King’s Speech on Tuesday, King Charles announced on behalf of the UK Government that “Ministers will introduce new legal frameworks to support the safe commercial development of emerging industries, such as self-driving vehicles”. The Speech is used by the UK Government to identify its upcoming legislative priorities, and the Bill is intended to “lead the way” globally by implementing “one of the world’s most comprehensive legal frameworks for self-driving vehicles”.
The background briefing to the Speech sets out some detail on the Bill, explaining that updates are required to the law to ensure potential benefits of self-driving can become a reality in the UK. The Bill is designed to put safety and protection of the user at the centre of the regulatory regime, and to create a liability framework to hold appropriate parties accountable in the case of incidents.
The briefing notes that the Bill will be based on and implement the recommendations made last year by the Law Commissions of England, Wales and Scotland following a four-year review of self-driving vehicle legislation. See here for our previous summary of those recommendations.
In particular, the Government’s background briefing to the Speech sought to emphasise that the Bill will:
Set a rigorous safety framework for self-driving vehicles, with safety at its core. This will include:
- Setting thresholds to define what a self-driving vehicle is, with the Department for Transport and its agencies receiving powers to authorise these vehicles and ensure in-use compliance with defined safety standards.
- Requiring companies to meet safety requirements once vehicles are on the road, with new sanctions for non-compliance to include fines, requirements to take corrective action, suspension of operation and criminal sanctions for serious breaches.
- Investigating incidents involving self-driving vehicles to ensure lessons are fed back into the safety framework.
- Digitalisation of Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) made by local authorities, e.g. in relation to speed limits, road closures and parking designations, in order to create a digital map of the road network to support safe operation of self-driving vehicles.
Ensure clear legal liability, including measures to:
- Ensure companies that develop and operate self-driving vehicles are responsible for the way they drive once on the road, with ongoing obligations to keep vehicles safe and report safety data to the authorisation authority.
- Protect users from being unfairly held accountable, including measures to provide immunity from prosecution in relation to incidents that occur when a self-driving vehicle is driving itself.
Protect the consumer, via a prohibition on misleading marketing so that only vehicles that meet the prescribed safety threshold can be marketed as ‘self-driving’.
Although no definitive timetable has been given, the Bill may be presented to Parliament for a first reading soon. If the Bill is to become law during the current Parliamentary session this must occur before the next general election, the timing of which is uncertain, however this would be in January 2025 at the latest.