View through windscreen of driverless car

Carmakers should be responsible for driverless offences, Law Commission says

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Makers of self-driving vehicles should face sanctions if their system causes an accident, not the passenger within, UK legal bodies have recommended.

The Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission have published joint report making recommendations for the safe and responsible introduction of self-driving vehicles.

It suggests the creation of a new Automated Vehicles Act which regulates vehicles that can drive themselves and creates a clear distinction between features which just assist drivers, such as adaptive cruise control, and those that are self-driving.

Under the Law Commissions’ proposals, when a car is authorised by a regulatory agency as having “self-driving features” and those features are in use, the person in the driving seat would no longer be responsible for how the car drives.

Instead, the company or body that obtained the authorisation would face regulatory sanctions if anything goes wrong.

The person in the driving seat would therefore no longer be a driver but a “user-in-charge” who cannot be prosecuted for offences that arise directly from the driving actions of the vehicle.

They would have immunity from a wide range of offences – from dangerous driving to exceeding the speed limit or running a red light. However, they would retain some duties such as carrying insurance, checking loads or ensuring that children wear seat belts.

According to a recent poll, the majority of people in the UK now have a favourable attitude to driverless vehicles, although many would still feel more comfortable with having a human operator ready to take control at a moment’s notice.

Nicholas Paines QC, public law commissioner, said: “We have an unprecedented opportunity to promote public acceptance of automated vehicles with our recommendations on safety assurance and clarify legal liability. We can also make sure accessibility, especially for older and disabled people, is prioritised from the outset.”

Transport minister Trudy Harrison said: “The development of self-driving vehicles in the UK has the potential to revolutionise travel, making every day journeys safer, easier and greener.”

The report has been laid before Parliament and the Scottish Parliament. It will be for the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments to decide whether to accept the Commissions’ recommendations and introduce legislation to bring them into effect.

Some Tesla vehicles already have a limited form of driverless functionality, but in November the firm was forced to recall nearly 12,000 vehicles sold since 2017 over concerns that the function could trigger a false forward-collision warning or an unexpected activation of the emergency brakes.

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