Weekly Brief: UK Hands-Free Regulation Could Reshape AV Industry

Self-driving cars may, effectively, be legal on UK roads as soon as next year, the UK government announced last week.

The UK Department of Transport has opened a consultation period with automakers and other stakeholders and safety advocates to discuss the legalization of automated lane-keeping-assist systems and other autonomous technologies. It’s a bold and unexpected move given that big governments around the world have been reluctant to create explicit rules about if and when autonomous technologies are permitted on public roads and who is responsible if something goes wrong.

Bravo to the UK government for sticking its neck out. It is in stark contrast to the United States, whose Department of Transportation has suggested that any form of basic regulation, oversight or scrutiny could stifle creativity and hamstring the fledgling AV industry. The department’s logic seems to be guided by the preposterous notion that developers are trustworthy and noble enough to regulate themselves. This despite a number of fatal warning signs, including Tesla’s well publicized Autopilot failures and Uber’s deadly pedestrian collision in Tempe, Arizona in 2018.

Our Paul Myles has the full details of how the UK’s consultation period will play out. On the docket for discussion will be if it’s legal for drivers to remove their hands from the steering wheel while a car is in motion and an AV system is engaged. If so, where and up to what speed? The UK DoT has suggested up to 70 mph on highways may be acceptable. Whatever it decides, suffice it to say the consequences of that decision could have an enormous impact on how the self-driving car revolution unfolds from here.

Legal responsibility has always been a grey area when it comes to self-driving cars in the consumer segment. In the commercial segment, whether it be a robo-taxi or a self-driving delivery van, there’s less ambiguity. If an accident happens and there’s no driver in the vehicle, culpability obviously falls on the shoulders of the automaker or the tech provider. Yet in the consumer segment, if a human driver is behind the wheel but using autonomous technology to drive, who’s responsible? The driver? The carmaker? The tech company? Governments have been loath to say so far but we’re about to find out in the UK.

If the UK legalizes hands-free use of lane-keeping systems but decides that the driver is still liable for his or her automobile when those systems are active, then automakers are effectively receiving a green light to proceed rolling out autonomous tech with little risk. Alternatively, if the UK deems the automaker to be responsible for an accident that occurs when lane-keeping systems are engaged, suddenly the automotive industry has a serious cost-benefit analysis to consider. Automotion will sell vehicles, no doubt. It’s worked for Tesla, it will work for others but if every carmaker has to be prepared to pay up when their technology leads to an accident on public roads, is it worth it in terms of legal and insurance costs and negative publicity?

We know that autonomous technology can potentially save lives by avoiding the majority of accidents that happen on roads today. Nonetheless, carmakers won’t make bonus money when their technology works but they could pay mightily when it doesn’t work. If that’s the case, it could influence how they market their autonomous technology. They’ll certainly be less likely to advertise any lane-keeping feature as capable substitutes for human driving. They may even be less likely to invest in autonomous tech in the consumer segment at all.

That’s why all eyes will be trained on the upcoming consultation period and the UK’s subsequent decision. Either way, the AV industry won’t be the same after.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *