What has happened in the driverless world since we held our conference on self-driving cars last year?
There has been a number of exciting developments; the Automated and Electric Vehicle (AEV) Bill has been passed through Parliament, the Government has announced a pilot to include an autonomous bus service from Fife to Edinburgh, and a self-driving taxi service in London, there is a new cyber security standard for self-driving vehicles as well as new guidance to help protect self- driving cars from hacking and advanced trials of automated vehicles are being developed in the UK.
The manufacturers are also in a flurry of excitement. Mercedes’ Daimler and BMW have teamed up to create advanced level 4 technology that they hope to launch mid-2020, Ford has announced that they will be releasing autonomous vehicles in Miami, Washington and Texas in 2021 for commercial and passenger transportation and Hyundai also just announced that they are investing €35 billion into autonomous vehicles. With the prediction that the industry will be worth £62 billion by 2030, it’s no wonder that manufacturers are fighting for their slice of the industry.
In addition, there are rumours that Apple will be unveiling their Apple autonomous car as early as 2023. Software company Oxbotica are currently trialling 5 fully autonomous vehicles in London as part of a £13.6 million research into the challenges of autonomous vehicles. E.g. insurance, cyber security and privacy. Oxbotica claim that each vehicle can detect 150 independent vehicle detections per second and detect traffic lights in 1/2000th per second. This is considerably faster than the human eye and one can only imagine the sheer scale of data that can be shared amongst vehicles to help make the world a safer place. And the software can run on everyday computer hardware similar to the average desk top.
It’s difficult to keep up with the pace of technology in the autonomous vehicles industry. But it does come at a cost. Tesla’s new ‘Smart Summon’’ available in the USA is the latest example. The recent software update created nothing short of chaos. Using a smartphone, you can summon your car from a maximum of 200 feet as long as the car is within your sight. However, there has been reports of the Teslas driving straight into the side of a garage whilst other owners have been left with bumper damage and similar.
You may recall the highly publicised Uber crash in Arizona in March 2018. A woman crossing the road with a bicycle was killed following a collision with an autonomous Uber Volvo XC90. The person in charge was streaming a video rather than being vigilant and keeping an eye on the road. It is now reported that there were software problems. The car had failed to identify the bicycle as an obstacle until just before the collision, and by then it was too late. Uber has been cleared of all criminal charges although criminal charges are still being considered against the person in charge of the vehicle. These findings in relation to the software issues will help to shape the recommendations for the developing autonomous vehicles industry, particularly as there has been 36 incidents involving autonomous Uber vehicles between September 2016 and March 2018.
Technology is continuing to gather speed and is developing at an alarming pace in the autonomous world. But it needs to slow down and to focus upon making our roads safer and reducing the number of accidents.
It is also crucial that suitable laws are in place before autonomous vehicles can be utilised in the public domain. The Law Commission are in the middle of their 3-year review on Autonomous Vehicles. The first consultation on Safety Assurance and Legal Liability was published in November 2018 and responses examined in June 2019. It was decided that the AEV Act is sufficient at this stage. Most respondents expected automatic reporting of collisions. There were discussions surrounding the minority of cases where there is no actual collision which might encourage fraudsters to make false claims years after the alleged event. A decision was made not to change the limitation periods and people would be encouraged to report accidents as soon as possible. As for late claims, the courts would need to weigh up the available evidence. Developers were keen to retain a minimum data set in the event of an accident. There was also an agreement that product liability would need to be reviewed as this would be relevant for “over the air” software update that add automotive driving features. However, such laws should be reviewed generally and not just in the context of autonomous vehicles.
Criminal Liability was also discussed. The proposal is that “Users in Charge” (people sitting at the wheel) should not be deemed as breaching driving rules when the automated driving system (ADS) is engaged. If there was a problem with the ADS, the police should be able to refer to a regulatory authority, responsible for the Safety Assurance. Each ADS would need to be backed by a self-selected authority, a ADSE, which might be a developer or a manufacturer. The authority would be able to apply a range of regulatory sanctions to the ADSE such as improvement notices, fines or withdrawal of approval. As for wrongs committed by an ADSE in cases where serious personal injury or death is involved, there is agreement that a review is needed as the law of corporate manslaughter is flawed as it does not apply to non-fatal injuries and it is difficult to enforce against large companies as senior management is removed from decision making. The law will need to be reviewed to look beyond manslaughter to include Health and Safety at Work Act 1984 and General Product Safety Regulations. However, this will need to be balanced with encouraging rather than stifling innovation.
The Law Commission published their second consultation on 16 October 2019. This time they are examining how to regulate passenger services in automated vehicles without a human driver or User in Charge. HARPS or Highly Automated Road Passenger Services are discussed. These are fleets of vehicles which are able to travel empty or with only passengers on board. It builds on the Safety Assurance Scheme from the first consultation. They are consulting until January 2020 so log in and have your say.
The government predictions and ambitions that autonomous vehicles will be readily available in 2021 now seems unlikely particularly as the Law Commission will have only just finished their 3-year consultation. And then the law will need to be reviewed in light of the outcome. It’s safer to say that autonomous vehicles will be on our roads by 2025 when hopefully, the law, technology and systems will be closely aligned.
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Petty Abrams, Solicitor
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