Autonomous vehicle users should not be held
responsible for collisions

Drivers of autonomous vehicles would not be liable in the event of a collision, according to new proposals.

The Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission have published a joint report that recommend a new “authorisation” scheme to decide whether any given ADS feature is or is not self-driving as a matter of law. This will distinguish between good (possibly very good) driver assistance features and those which are safe enough to allow the vehicle to drive itself.

Once a vehicle is authorised as having “self-driving” ADS features, and a self-driving ADS feature is engaged, the system of legal accountability will change. In particular:

  • The person in the driving seat will no longer be a driver but will become a “user-in-charge”. They will have immunity from a wide range of offences related to the way the vehicle drives, ranging from dangerous or careless driving, to exceeding the speed limit or running a red light. However, the user-in-charge will retain other driver duties, such as arranging insurance and checking loads.
  • They may also be required to take over driving in response to a “transition demand”, if the vehicle encounters a problem it cannot handle.

Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer at Thatcham Research, an organisation which was part of the consultation for the Law Commissions’ report, said: “The transition to safe introduction of automation with self-driving capabilities is fraught with risk as we enter the early stages of adoption.

"The report is a significant step, as it provides important legal recommendations and clarity for the safe deployment of vehicles with self-driving features onto the UK’s roads.

“In the next 12 months, we’re likely to see the first iterations of self-driving features on cars on UK roads.”

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.