Hands-free driving could arrive as early as next year. The Law Commission of England, Wales and Scotland is reviewing the regulatory framework for the safe deployment of automated vehicles.

It is thought that initially, the technology is envisaged to help navigate traffic jams at low speed. However, the government is also considering legalising it for use at speeds of up to 70mph in the slow lanes of motorways.

The introduction of this system raises a number of legal and personal concerns:

1. What is an automated vehicle?

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 confirms that a vehicle should be listed under the Act if it is designed or adapted to be capable, in at least some circumstances or situations, of safely driving itself and may lawfully be used when driving itself, in at least some circumstances or situations, on roads or other public places in Great Britain.

2. How are the vehicles to be tested?

Testing of the vehicles is difficult in that what may work and be deemed safe in one environment, may not work in another. Previous tests in Arizona and California in 2018 involved tragic fatalities which just highlight the importance of stringent safety testing before these vehicles are released.

Manufacturers will need to be sure that the vehicles will be safe to drive in many countries and this raises a problem – road markings differ country to country and so, how will the vehicles recognise how to drive in each country? It has been said that the units on the vehicles that scan the environment can be obscured by rain, heavy fog and snow and so, the vehicles will need to be tested in all weather conditions.

3. How does insurance work on an automated vehicle?

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) say that they are 100% committed to supporting the development of automated vehicles. Major insurers are working on pilots of autonomous vehicles and car manufacturers are making innovative software and hardware.

The ABI propose that there should just be one single insurance policy (in the same way that we insure our cars now) and a driver can use the automated mode in the vehicle whenever road regulations permit.

4. Who is responsible if another road user is injured?

If another driver, pedestrian or cyclist needs to make a claim, they will do so against the insurance company direct and not the vehicle owner or driver. Drivers will not, the ABI says, be unfairly held responsible for an accident they could not prevent. If the accident was caused by a technical fault, the insurer will then have the option of making a recovery from the vehicle manufacturer.

5. How will it work in practice?

At the moment, tests are still ongoing and we don’t know how successful the vehicles will be, although there are certainly high hopes. It is important to remember that it is unlikely the vehicles will be able to drive whole journeys initially and the driver will need to be on hand to take manual control. Therefore, the driver will still need to be fully trained and sober.

A YouGov survey found that 36% of 1947 adults would ‘not be comfortable at all’ with the idea of driverless cars and 33% said they would not be ‘very comfortable’. The majority of people appear to have their doubts and only time will tell as to how quickly these vehicles will take to the roads in the UK. There are a lot of issues to be ironed out and overall, public opinion will need to be positive in order for the sale of such vehicles to take off. Will humans put their trust in machines? Will they allow their children to travel in an automated vehicle? We will be watching the developments closely and we are interested to see how the planned introduction will pan out in practice.

If you have been involved in a road traffic accident or you require any other legal advice, you can contact Farleys on 0845 287 0939 or send us a message and a member of our team will be happy to assist you.