Motorists should not be held liable for accidents caused by fully autonomous vehicles, according to a new report. The document produced by the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission recommends introducing a new Automated Vehicles Act, to regulate vehicles that can drive themselves.

Under the suggested terms of the act, the vehicle’s manufacturer or “Authorised Self-Driving Entity” would be the one to face any sanctions should things go awry. That would take the responsibility from the occupants of the vehicle, who would no longer be liable for the way in which the vehicle drives.

First of all, however, the Law Commission has set out a clear picture of what constitutes an autonomous car, claiming a vehicle would have to be capable of operating without any human oversight for some or all of a journey. That means driver assistance features, including Tesla's Autopilot system, would not be covered by the proposed rules, which will now be forwarded to the government for consideration.

Google Driverless Car

Should the rules come into force, there would be a new accountability system when full self-driving vehicles are in use. Instead of being a driver, the person in the hot seat would become a “user in charge”, who could not be prosecuted for offences that “arise directly from the driving task”.

That means they would be immune from offences such as exceeding the speed limit, driving dangerously or running a red light, but they would still retain other duties including carrying insurance and checking loads. Instead, the Authorised Self-Driving Entity (ASDE) would become liable for traffic offences.

Nissan Leaf autonomous testing in London

For vehicles that can drive themselves without anyone in the driver’s seat, the occupants would simply be classed as passengers, and would not be liable for the vehicle’s behaviour. Instead of having a ‘user in charge’, a licensed operator would be responsible for overseeing the journey.

As well as suggesting these new rules for the driverless cars of the future, the Law Commission has also called for new marketing rules that prevent manufacturers from marketing existing vehicles with driver assistance features as “self-driving”. This, the commission claims, would help to minimise the chances of drivers believing they do not need to pay attention when a driver assistance feature is in operation.

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

Transport Minister Trudy Harrison said she and the government would take a close look the Law Commission report, which the Department for Transport (DfT) commissioned, and consider the recommendations.

“The development of self-driving vehicles in the UK has the potential to revolutionise travel, making everyday journeys safer, easier and greener,” she said. “This government has been encouraging development and deployment of these technologies to understand their benefits. However, we must ensure we have the right regulations in place, based upon safety and accountability, in order to build public confidence. That’s why the department funded this independent report and I look forward to fully considering the recommendations and responding in due course.”

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