What happens if a so-called driverless vehicle causes an accident? Who is at fault? Does a driver still have to exercise proper control of a driverless vehicle at all times? Do you still have to have both hands on the steering wheel? Do you still have to keep a two-second gap behind the car in front? How can a driver see moving images on in-vehicle screens without breaking the current law?
These are just some of the many issues to be wrestled with. There will be more. However, as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and automated vehicle technologies (ADT) develop so must regulation be kept up-to-date to ensure there can be safe implementation and there are established legal parameters.
As we progress towards fully driverless vehicles there will be a need to amend existing regulations or introduce new ones. This will be an ongoing process. The Department for Transport published a consultation about this on 11 July 2016. It runs until 9 September 2016 and is a necessary first stage to keep up with immediate needs.
There are different levels of ADAS and ADT. Whilst we speak of 'driverless cars', there are different levels or stages of driver assistance and automation. It is not a simple case of either 'driver cars' or 'driverless cars'. We are some years from truly driverless cars that will take you from A to B with no driver input. But vehicles that can be parked by remote control or can pilot themselves (supervised by the driver) on motorways are said to be coming on sale within two to four years from now. The different levels of assistance/automation driving are now categorised as follows:
0. conventional – (hands/eyes on) driver only
1. assisted – (hands/eyes on) driver assistance
2. assisted driving – (hands/eyes on) ADT
3. assisted driving – (temporary hands off/eyes on) ADT
4. automated driving – (hands off/eyes off) highly automated
5. automated driving – (hands off/eyes off) fully automated
A concern of an objective bystander is understandably that the greater the automation, the greater the risk of accident – this is a natural feeling. However, 90% of accidents are caused by human error and what to some may be a paradox is that death/injuries could in fact be positively reduced. The DfT also cites better use of road space and enhanced mobility to those who cannot drive as further benefits.
The DfT consultation proposals concentrate on certain areas that need addressing: insurance (so insurance products can be in place for the introduction of automated vehicles) and Construction & Use Regulations/Highway Code to tackle the first phase of automation issues such remote parking, motorway assist and ‘platooning’. Platooning is where there are a string of closely following vehicles that may be linked mechanically or through technology, e.g. for braking for more efficient road usage; each vehicle adjusts its own speed, distance and braking etc autonomously relative to the vehicle in front.
Insurance: one question is how to deal with this area when a driver will at some stage never ‘drive’ the vehicle or do so for only part of a journey.
On the one hand, liability accidents involving fully automated cars (for product failure) should arguably be dealt with by manufacturers. On the other hand, the cause of an accident may be unclear: drivers may be at fault or there may be a dispute as to what caused an accident – driver fault or faulty vehicle? How does one know if technology failed or the driver was at fault? If there is a defective vehicle what protection is there not only for third parties, but also the driver who could be affected by that vehicle? Currently, the minimum insurance requirement is only to protect third parties.
To address these issues, the DfT wishes to make a change in the insurance system before the first wave of automated vehicles comes to market. The DfT suggests that there is no need for any significant change relating to liability in road traffic accidents. The proposal is that an owner’s compulsive insurance policy for an automated vehicle be extended to cover product liability. This insurance would also have to cover injuries to a “not at fault" automated vehicle driver as well as passengers and third parties, i.e. the driver of the defective vehicle. This then raises the issue of the manufacturer’s position but the DfT suggests insurers and manufacturers may wish to engage in risk sharing arrangements or, failing that, insurers will be able to claim back from a manufacturer the damages they have had to pay out following an accident for product defects.
Highway Code/Construction of Use Regulations: The consultation seeks views on whether to change the rules relating to a number of issues affected by the new technology:
- a potential proposal is to allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel where the technology permits this, but still prohibit non-driving tasks that could be distracting.
- an amendment in relation to handheld mobile devices to allow drivers controlling vehicles via a handheld device when engaging in remote control parking.
- in order for a car to be remotely parked when the driver is outside the vehicle, there needs to be an amendment to the current rule forbidding engines of unattended vehicles being switched on.
- the current law will need to be amended to permit a driver to sit somewhere other than in the driving seat so long as control is maintained through a hand-held device.
- the consultation suggests relaxing the “two second gap” Highway Code rule where there are active vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems as part of a platoon of vehicles, where a vehicle can brake simultaneously with the vehicle in front.
The DfT does not propose relaxing any existing restrictions concerning driver distractions, e.g. eating/drinking, using handheld mobile phones, etc.
The above tackles just some of the various scenarios that result from the impending introduction of these innovations and, as there is further development and integration of ADAS/ADT, further legislative changes will need to take place.
We will provide further detailed information with regard to the numerous issues thrown up in this developing area.