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UK: Law Commission gears up for driverless cars

Just before Christmas, the Law Commission announced plans to develop laws to support the safe development and use of driverless cars in the UK.  The aim is to develop legislation which may be ready as early as 2021.

The Law Commission is an independent law reform watchdog for England and Wales and this review is one of 14 new project areas unveiled as part of its 13th Programme of Law Reform.  Amongst the other projects announced by the Law Commission, the laws on smart contracts (which are self-executing contracts written in computer code), electronic signatures and certain residential leasehold topics (namely commonhold, enfranchisement and the regulation of managing agents) will also be getting attention.  The Law Commission Chair and Court of Appeal judge Sir David Bean said that this programme of law reform “attracted unprecedented interest across a broad range of areas.”“The Commission has now refined these ideas in what I believe is a highly relevant and important series of law reform projects.  We want to help tackle injustices by making the law simpler, clearer and fit for the future.  We will also be making sure the law supports cutting edge technical innovation such as automated vehicles and smart contracts.”

The aim of the Law Commission’s three year project will be to “promote public confidence in the safe use of automated vehicles, and to ensure the UK has a vibrant and world-leading automated vehicles industry”.

Driverless technology continues to develop rapidly around the world.  There have been a number of recent announcements from major players in the market which bring the prospect of driverless cars closer, with self-driving vehicles now being tested on public roads in the UK and US.  In the longer term, their development is likely to result in changes to the design of prime urban locations, for example reducing the requirement for parking in town centres and out of town shopping destinations.

The government has already stated its intention to make the UK a world leader in driverless car technology and has predicted that the automated vehicle industry will be worth £28 billion to the UK economy by 2035.  This announcement supports the government’s pledge made in the Autumn Budget 2017 to have fully driverless cars on the road by 2021.

Earlier this month, the government also published its 25 year plan for the natural environment, confirming its commitment to invest in electric vehicle infrastructure and new charging technologies.

In our view, the announcement of this review by the Law Commission is a welcome step.  It is essential that new laws are developed to deal with automated vehicles, which do not readily fit within the existing legal framework.   The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill is currently at the report stage in the House of Commons and establishes certain rules around liability for accidents involving driverless vehicles.   It remains to be seen how the Law Commission review will tie in with the contents of the Bill but we expect it to consider ways in which driverless cars will be regulated and further clarify the difficult question of who should be liable for accidents.

The technology surrounding automated vehicles is racing ahead and it is essential that the law keeps up.