Automated Vehicles - The Future Has Arrived (But I am still waiting for my hoverboard!)

Craig MacKenzie
Craig MacKenzie

Published: May 31st, 2024

4 mins read

The Automated Vehicles Act 2024 was passed into law on May 20, 2024. Over the coming months and years, manufacturers will launch new driving features. These features may lead to the 'driver' simply sitting back and enjoying the ride. We could just call it a taxi experience! 

The new law puts Great Britain firmly at the forefront of self-driving technology regulation, unlocking the potential of an industry estimated to be worth up to £42 billion and creating 38,000 more skilled jobs by 2035.  It is anticipated that self-driving vehicles will be on British roads as soon as 2026 and they are expected to improve road safety by reducing human error, which contributes to 88% of road collisions. 

A self-driving vehicle has at least one self-driving feature, delivering sufficiently high levels of automation that it meets a legally defined threshold and is capable of safely driving itself with no human input. Such features could provide self-driving capability for all or part of a journey.

Despite the driving experience being managed by silicon chips, the law introduces a novel concept of 'user-in-charge'. This term refers to the individual who is physically present in the vehicle and has the ability to control it, even if they are not actively doing so.

The law provides that 'the user-in-charge of a vehicle is to be taken for the purposes of any enactment to be the driver of, and driving, the vehicle.'

Unsurprisingly, the 2024 Act brings about extensive changes to current road traffic provisions. These modifications are crucial to ensure that criminal offences can be applied to self-driving vehicles, thereby maintaining safety and order on the roads.

However, there will be immunity from prosecution in some circumstances. 

The Act provides that, in certain circumstances where an authorised automated feature is engaged, an individual in the vehicle and in a position to operate the driving controls (referred to as a "user-in-charge", or UiC) may claim an immunity for offences arising from the way the vehicle is driven. If a self-driving feature requires a responsible human inside the vehicle (e.g. because it can only complete part of a journey such as for a motorway chauffeur system), that human is the driver while the feature is disengaged and becomes a UiC when the self-driving feature is engaged. The UiC will not be responsible for the way the self-driving vehicle drives when the feature is engaged.

The interplay of liability between the vehicle and the user-in-charge is incredibly complex, and it is likely that the criminal courts will soon be grappling with how the Act is to be properly interpreted and applied in a real-world situation.

We will be watching this area of criminal law with great interest, and all our team members are equipped to advise anyone accused of or charged with an offence involving an automated vehicle.  If you would like to discuss any aspect of your case, please contact Craig MacKenzie, Partner, and Head of the High Profile & Private Crime Division. 

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