The 7 November 2023 saw King Charles make his speech at the state opening of Parliament, addressing 21 new policies.
One of the most anticipated topics of discussion was the Automated Vehicle Bill, summarised in the King’s Speech briefing notes; ‘The Automated Vehicles Bill will unlock a transport revolution by enabling the safe deployment of self-driving vehicles. It will cement the UK’s position as a global leader in this high tech and high growth industry and deliver one of the world’s most comprehensive legal frameworks for self-driving vehicles, with safety at its core.’
Whilst the notion of self-driving vehicles remains frightening for many, King Charles insists that the bill is introduced with safety at the forefront. The speech highlights that in 2021, 88 percent of road accidents involved human error. This means that the potential for self-driving technology to reduce risk on the road is astronomical.
How will the bill make our roads safer?
The bill specifically addresses that only vehicles that are able to drive themselves safely and are able to follow all road traffic rules without human intervention will be permitted to drive on UK roads. The Department for Transport will be provided with the ability to authorise those vehicles that comply with the safety regulations.
Once vehicles are out on the road, the companies which produce them will be held highly accountable. Companies which fail in their duty to keep their consumers safe will be facing new sanctions and penalties such as fines and suspension of operation. Matters will be considered criminal in very serious cases.
The bill also establishes new processes to investigate incidents involving self-driving vehicles. This is to ensure that lessons are learnt and fed back into the safety framework to prevent similar incidents.
The bill also looks to digitalise Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs). This means that local authorities will be required to send any changes (speed limits, closed roads etc) to a central publication platform. This data will be used to create a digital footprint of the roads. This will in turn assist self-driving vehicles to operate safely.
How will the bill effect legal liability on the roads?
Whilst a self-driving vehicle is operating itself, it is a company rather than an individual who is responsible for the way it drives. The bill sets out the responsibilities of companies that develop and operate self-driving vehicles.
These companies will have a responsibility to keep vehicles safe and ensure that they are adhering to the law once they are authorised. They will also be required to report safety-related data to the authorisation authority and comply with other laws such as data protection and environmental protection legislation.
The bill also provides protection to consumers when a self-driving vehicle is operating itself and an accident occurs, given that it does not make sense to hold the person in the drivers seat responsible. This protection only applies in this specific circumstance, however. Insuring the vehicle, safe loading and responsibility when the vehicle is being operated by the driver still garner responsibility of the individual.
What is the motor industry saying?
The bill introduces many promising developments in the motor industry, but the concept of automated vehicles is neither perfect or fully realised.
Niall Edwards, motor insurance specialist and partner at Kennedys stated “Whilst we welcome further detail on the Automated Vehicles Bill, which broadly follows the earlier recommendations of the Law Commission, one issue which is notable by its absence (in the briefing note but may still be in the Bill or related legislation) is how access to in-vehicle data will be ensured to key stakeholders.
“Ready access to such data is crucial, not only for insurers but also the police in determining where liability lies in the event of a crash.
“It is also essential for anybody monitoring the future performance of these vehicles on the road to ensure safety, which we are pleased to see is front and centre of the Bill and quite rightly so in ensuring public confidence in this emerging technology.”