Self-driving cars and road traffic law - The expert's perspective

The future of self-driving cars

The future of self-driving cars

By Jeremy Sirrell, Supervising Director, Palmers Solicitors

The future has arrived… well, almost.

In a landmark piece of legislation, on the 20 May 2024, the Automated Vehicles Act 2024 received Royal assent – bringing into law the long-awaited Act that gives authorisation to self-driving vehicles for road use.

The scope of the Act

It is an interesting Act, departing somewhat from the usual run of Parliamentary Legislation in that it seeks to set out a broad framework for the authorisation of and use on British roads of self-driving vehicles.

The vast majority of the Act is not aimed at drivers or those who will be using the self-driving vehicles as passengers, but rather at, what it terms, licenced operators.

These are bodies regulated by the statute and who are charged with a wide variety of responsibilities, required to meet a number of criteria to obtain such a licence.

The content of the Act

The Act starts off with briefly describing a self-driving vehicle, giving a definition, and then sets out a statement of safety principles.

It requires the Secretary of State to prepare a statement of principles that he proposes to apply in assessing whether a vehicle is, indeed, a self-driving vehicle or not.

The Secretary of State is then given the power to authorise a self-driving vehicle for use on the road.

Very little is actually devoted to the liability of any passenger within a self-driving vehicle. It appears the Act envisages a world where responsibility for accidents involving self-driving vehicles will devolve within the first instance on the operator of the self-driving vehicle.

That is to say, the body that has responsibility for the operation of the vehicle. Although this is not defined in the Act, it seems likely to be either a manufacturer or some secondary body who has taken over responsibility for operating the vehicle.

What next?

What is clear from the Act is that, for the first time, the definition of a self-driving vehicle is given, provisions for safety requirements are laid down (or at least provision for them are made for them to be laid down) and a general framework for the operation of such vehicles is put in place to enable self-driving cars to be used on British roads.

The earliest vehicles will not be likely to hit the roads before 2026 and, realistically speaking, it could be very much later.

This is because self-driving cars will only become a reality when the technology has advanced sufficiently for driverless vehicles to be used on ordinary British roads in ordinary road conditions reliably and safely so that they become a genuine alternative to driving one’s own car.

The reason this legislation is so important is because it effectively removes the principal obstacle standing in the way of the use of driverless cars on our roads assuming, of course, that the issue of sufficient artificial intelligence capacity is indeed finally conquered.

We will not see any driverless cars on the road before 2026 and very possibly much later than that but we have moved one step (and it is a very large step) towards seeing driverless cars on our roads to be used by ordinary consumers, drivers and passengers for the first time in history.

For further advice on road traffic law, please contact Jeremy Sirrell at JeremySirrell@palmerslaw.co.uk