11 Sep 17

Autonomous driving triggers huge shakeup of road legislation

The European Commission fully supports driverless vehicles, Germany is the first country to semi-legalize autonomous driving. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom jostles for position as the best place to support testing and development. How is legislation changing in support of an autonomous future?

Earlier in 2017, a two-day summit on autonomous driving was held in Brussels. The first of its kind, the European Commission promised dedicated funding, regulatory changes, cross-border agreements and innovation stimulus.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker identified driverless vehicles as an area where the EU can deliver tangible benefits to citizens. Three weeks later, national leaders signed an agreement in Rome to allow cross-border tests and establish a single point of contact in each country to approve them.

The Vienna Convention
Of the 28 EU countries, 21 have signed up to the Vienna Convention, a UN treaty established in 1968 that sets out (among other things) to harmonize the rules of the road. It stipulates that all road vehicles must have a driver and that they must be in control continually. The technology for automated driving has called this into question and so the rule is now “open to interpretation”.

It can take many years to modify a UN treaty and work to do so has yet to begin. The EU has recognized that quick regulatory adjustment is necessary if it is to be a leader in innovation. It’s not so much a case of flouting the rules as doing what’s necessary to keep things moving.

The question as to where liability lies in the event of an accident is a thorny one. Insurance companies across Europe have joined forces to develop a solution. One option is to extend compulsory motor insurance to cover product liability and protect motorists if the software malfunctions when they’re in control. Some manufacturers like Volvo have confirmed they will self-insure this aspect of their autonomous vehicles.

The Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, currently making its way through UK Parliament, could set a precedent for autonomous car legislation across Europe.

Under the Bill, where a crash is found to be the fault of the vehicle itself and not the driver, the insurer whose policy covers the car will be liable. For the first time, this means the insurer is liable to compensate its own policy holder for their injuries as well as an injured passenger or third party.

EU standards must be brought up-to-date for driverless vehicle production to ensure the performance of automated systems. They need to be tested cheaply and easily and included in annual MoTs.

The UK
UK Ministers are keen to push through a “rolling programme of reform”, starting this summer, with a proposed Modern Transport Bill, plus changes to insurance and the Highway Code.

Meanwhile, the Department for Transport (DfT) has issued a Code of Practice for testing driverless cars on UK roads. It stipulates that a manual override and the presence of a test pilot must be in place invariably. The test pilot must have a full driving license and comprehensive understanding of automated technology and they must act as if driving the vehicle under normal circumstances. The car must also be fully insured and “road legal”. Vehicles (and pilots) must obey all driving laws and limits and cars must be fitted with an event data recorder (black box).

The UK’s Highway Code
Autonomous vehicles will have to follow current guidelines laid down by the UK’s Highway Code. The Code itself may be updated to accommodate the new autonomous driving regime. Tailgating, for example, currently outlawed, could be allowable for autonomous vehicles running in convoy, which is how transport fleets may be operated. Platooning autonomous vehicles in this way optimizes road capacity and cuts emissions.

Germany was the first Government worldwide to broadly legalize self-driving cars but only up to level 4 automation, which is not fully autonomous. The law also stipulates the use of a black box recorders and demands that manufacturers make the limitations of autonomous technology, not just capabilities, clear to drivers.

In June 2017, a revised bipartisan Bill allowing automakers to obtain exemption to deploy vehicles without meeting existing auto safety standards was approved. It limits the number to 25,000 (in the first year, 100,000 thereafter) but bars states from imposing driverless vehicle rules. The Bill has yet to be approved by Congress but vehicle manufacturers and technology companies are confident.

A senior EU science and innovation commissioner has been quoted as saying: “Owning a non-autonomous car will soon be like owning a horse.” The first automobiles to take to the road were viewed with suspicion. It took almost 50 years for them to replace the horse and cart. Given the current pace of technological and legislative development, it could take less than a decade for autonomous vehicles do the same.

Authored by: Alison Pittaway