The Law Commissions of England and Wales, and of Scotland, have published a second consultation paper on autonomous vehicles and how their use could be regulated.
This is another major milestone in the three-year review commissioned by the UK Government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles.
The Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission (the Law Commissions) are reviewing legislation to prepare for the introduction of self-driving vehicles on UK roads.
This second consultation focuses on how completely automated trips might be supplied to the public in vehicles that can travel empty or only with passengers and no driver or user-in-charge - refered to as Highly Automated Road Passenger Services (HARPS).
Establishing an effective legal framework can help increase the likelihood of societal benefits and reduce the risk of potential downsides from the introduction of self-driving vehicles carrying only passengers, the Law Commissions argue.
It asks a series of questions to examine the changes that may be required to regulate HARPS. These include:
- Whether HARPS should be subject to a new, single, national system of operator licensing?
- If so, what obligations should fall on HARPS operators? For example, we consider obligations relating to maintenance, remote supervision and the reporting of accidents.
- Who should these obligations fall on when a HARPS vehicle is privately-owned?
- How can we ensure that HARPS are accessible?
- What regulatory tools should be used to control congestion and cruising?
- How should HARPS be integrated with public transport?
Nicholas Paines QC, Law Commissioner at the Law Commission of England and Wales said: 'Self-driving cars have the potential to revolutionise mass transit by enhancing safety, efficiency and accessibility.
'Responses to our consultation are vital for ensuring that our proposed regulatory framework will allow the full potential of self-driving cars to be realised, and we hope as many people as possible will respond.'
Benefits and challenges of self-driving passenger-only vehicles
In the discussing the pros and cons of self driving passenger vehicles, the Law Commissions suggest benefits could include:
- Reduced congestion as people share self-driving vehicles and use them in combination with existing public transport.
- Improved safety through sensors, data sharing, safer driving behaviour and faster-than-human reaction times
- Increased accessibility for older people and disabled people; HARPS could provide accessible services that are more affordable than current alternatives. This could allow older people and disabled people, especially those on low incomes, to travel more
- Reduced car parking that can allow space currently ceded to parking to be reclaimed, for example, for cycle lanes.
On the other hand, there are potential challenges that may arise from the introduction of these vehicles if effective regulation is not in place. These include:
- Traffic being blocked, if a self-driving car freezes when confronting unexpected weather conditions or unknown obstacles (including, possibly, leaves or plastic bags).
- Reduced accessibility for those who rely on a driver to assist them, for example by helping them into the vehicle or accompanying them from their door.
- Increased congestion if many self-driving vehicles are introduced before private car use has reduced. This will be compounded if HARPS drive around empty, waiting to be utilised.