BMW April 2022

The European Law Commission has begun its consultation into reforms which might be essential to the law to be able to help in the development of autonomous cars.  

The proposal of road networks designated to self-driving cars has yet to happen as the consultation is more concerned with how to add automation to the already existing network. Before autonomous vehicles can be sold on the market and placed on the roads the consultation will consider safety, rules of the road adaptations, maintenance requirements, and a civil and criminal liability.  

It is no secret that the automotive industry is a key commercial player. With the increased interest and focus in autonomous vehicles, the automotive sector is the third highest investor in terms of research and development, behind healthcare and electronics.  

Unfortunately, creating the automated technology is not the only problem. One of the biggest issues remains with data. As with any cloud or transmission of information, privacy is a concern that will have to be addressed. In particular to self-driving vehicles there is worry over remote hacking of information and data, including, eavesdropping, ransom attacks and fraud. 

Besides data worry, what about the issues of legal responsibility? Autonomous vehicles will no longer be making decisions based on the driver, but by software. In the event of a collision who, or what, would be held legally responsible, the driver, manufacture, or software? 

Now, vehicle control is very black and white. The Law Commission considers that there are six categories of driver responsibilities, including, qualifications to drive, fitness to drive, managing distractions, civil liability (causing injury or damage), criminal liability (causing death by dangerous driving), and criminal liability not related to driving (appropriate child seats, insurance.) 

Automation will most likely change or at least affect all the listed categories of a driver’s responsibilities. For example, how will testing for a driving licence change? Will drivers need to be as knowledgeable about the vehicle and rules of the road if it is all automated? 

Existing driving issues have the potential of becoming obsolete, with the reliance of technology bringing new obstacles. Studies conducted on the use of autopilot in aviation have shown problems of over reliance where pilots were reluctant to take control when the autopilot was wrong. Furthermore, legal disclaimers and warnings were habitually disregarded. For self-driving cars to be introduced onto roads, how can existing issues of over reliance be fixed? 

Consultation proposals have attempted to solve the problem of over reliance through the Operational Design Domain (ODD). The ODD would limit autonomous driving to certain situations. For instance, lane control only to be accessible on a motorway where traffic is travelling at a similar speed and in the same direction. 

However, drivers must be made aware of the use of limitations of the ODD and the consequences for using it improperly for these consultation proposals to be effective. The initial consultation by the Law Commission closed last year.  

As it has been made apparent, the prospect of self-driving vehicles on the roads has left many unanswered questions. Although the technology itself is not a long way off, the issues of infrastructures, laws, driver responsibility and over reliance have yet to be solved.