UK Drivers - Are we really ready to lose control?

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15 September, 2020

The Government has recently launched a consultation into the technology supporting 'hands-free' driving, and estimate it could be legal on all UK roads by as early as 2021. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders suggest this new hands free technology could potentially cut accidents by up to 60%, by controlling the car's movements to keep it in lane for extended periods.

The technology for a vehicle to steer itself and stay in lane already exists to some degree in some high performance modern cars. Tesla and Audi's autopilot functions being good examples of that, but at the present time there is still a legal requirement for the driver to remain alert and ready to take over the controls instantly if required to do so. The newly launched consultation goes one step further, and will now consider additional changes to the current legal framework, which would negate the need for the driver to remain alert at all times, and in theory, the driver could do other things such as make phone calls, check emails or even watch TV, until the vehicle prompts them to take over the controls again.

Automated lane keeping systems (ALKS) have already been approved by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), of which, at the present time, the UK is still a member. This technology could therefore soon be given the go ahead for hands free driving of speeds of up to 70mph in the UK, potentially making long stretches of tedious motorway driving a thing of the past.

This latest technology will no doubt raise complex questions with Insurers and Lawyers as to potential liability issues in the event of vehicular accidents. For example, should an accident occur whilst the ALKS system is fully engaged, who would be responsible, the technology provider or the driver? If another driver, pedestrian or cyclist needs to make a claim, will they do so against the manufacturer, the insurance company, the vehicle owner or the driver? The ABI have suggested it would seem unfair to hold a driver of an ALKS engaged system responsible for an accident they could not prevent. But what if the accident was caused by a technical fault, will the insurer then have the option of making a recovery from the vehicle manufacturer?

It is clear the introduction of this system is going to raise a number of legal concerns, not least, what constitutes an automated vehicle? The Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 confirms that a vehicle should only be listed under the Act if it is 'designed or adapted to be capable of safely driving itself on roads or other public places in Great Britain'. But how can we accurately test whether such adapted vehicles are capable of safely driving themselves ? Tests carried out in America in 2018, involving tragic fatalities, failed to do this, highlighting further the importance of more stringent safety testing before these vehicles are released on the roads. What may be deemed safe and acceptable in one environment, terrain or Country, may perform poorly or not work at all in another. Manufacturers will need to be 100% sure that the vehicles will be safe to drive in all countries where roads, weather conditions, road markings and speeds can differ enormously. It has recently been proven that the scanners on the vehicles tested recently were easily obscured by rain, heavy fog, snow and icy conditions.

In addition, how will insurance cover work? The Association of British Insurers (ABI) have proposed that there should be just one single insurance policy, in the same way that we insure now, and that a driver will be insured to use the 'automated mode' in the vehicle 'but only when road regulations permit'. Again, a grey area, open to interpretation, and for which I foresee much debate when it comes to determining fault and liability for accidents.

It is clear to see that we are still far from knowing how successful these vehicles will be. Although hopes remain high, the general consensus is that caution should still be exercised at this stage. It seems unlikely to me that these vehicles will be able to drive lengthy journeys totally hands free for some considerable time. A recent YouGov survey found that 69% of nearly 2,000 adults asked, confirmed they would not trust or be comfortable with the idea of driverless cars, suggesting that the majority of people surveyed appear to still have huge doubts surrounding safety.

The Law Commission of England, Wales and Scotland is currently re-reviewing the regulatory framework for the safe deployment of automated vehicles. Only time will tell as to how quickly these vehicles will take to the roads in the UK, and what the fall out will be in terms of determining liability for accidents and injury.

Forbes Solicitors have an experienced team of Personal Injury Solicitors dealing with all aspects of road traffic accident claims on a no win, no fee basis. For a free consultation, or to receive further information relating to any of the issues raised in this article, please contact Lisa Atkinson, Associate at Forbes Solicitors in Accrington direct on 01254 222 448 or another member of the Personal Injury Claims Team on 01254 872 111. You can also contact the team via the online Contact form.

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