The rise of vehicle autonomy in the UK: implications for road traffic accidents

11 Apr 2019

Specialist Personal Injury solicitor at Trethowans, James Braund, explores the implications of the increasing shift towards autonomous vehicles in the UK.

The British government has announced that it wants to see fully autonomous cars (with no driver or steering wheels) tested, with the plan for such vehicles to be on the roads by 2021.

This is despite a series of fatal Road Traffic Accidents in the United States of America, including when an Uber autonomous car killed a pedestrian in Arizona and a Tesla on autopilot mode was involved in a fatal accident, both occurring in March 2018.

At present, the law requires some form of human overseeing the vehicle, which can be remotely and passive (but must be ready to exercise control if required).

Interestingly, an AXA commissioned survey from last year suggested that, despite the fact that around 90% of Road Traffic Accidents are caused by human error, only 27% of people thought autonomous vehicles would improve road safety.

The Society of Automotive Engineers has five levels of autonomy in vehicles:

  • Level 0 involves the vehicle being fully controlled by a human;
  • Level 1 is where there is some form as driving assistance, such as braking control;
  • Level 2 is partial automation and includes a vehicle being able to control both steering and acceleration / deceleration;
  • Level 3 is conditional automation and is where a vehicle can make informed decisions and control itself, but requires a human to take over if it is unable to execute a task or the system fails;
  • Level 4 (high automation) does not even require a human to take over.
  • Finally, level 5 (full automation), involves the vehicle not requiring a human to take over in any situation and can adapt to its surroundings.

What are the challenges facing autonomous vehicles?

There are clearly lots of challenges facing engineers working on autonomous vehicles – not least the quality of the environment scanners (which can struggle in bad weather) and lane markings and road signs differing around the world. There is also the reluctance of people to relinquish control and trust their safety completely to a robot; accentuated by the fatal accidents which have already been reported.

In such situations, where an autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicle has been involved in a Road Traffic Accident, it is not a straightforward issue in determining any finding of fault.

The Autonomous and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 allows an insurance company to recover damages from the manufacturer of an autonomous vehicle (levels 4 and 5) if the technology is to blame for the cause of the accident.

However, semi-autonomous vehicles (levels 1, 2 and 3) are not governed by the Act and there is potential for complex arguments on liability in Road Traffic Accidents involving these vehicles. There could well be complex arguments raised as to whether the driver or the manufacturer was at fault. There could also be the potential of additional arguments both in relation to the last person to have serviced or calibrated the vehicle and also arguments under the Consumer Protection Act 1987.

James Braund, specialist Personal Injury and Clinical Negligence solicitor and Senior Associate at Trethowans LLP’s Dorset offices comments:

“At present, the law relating to semi autonomous vehicles appears caught in something of a limbo between fully driven vehicles, subject to many years worth of legislation and case law and fully autonomous vehicles and driverless vehicles, subject only to the Autonomous and Electric Vehicles Act 2018. It is easy to foresee a myriad of scenarios when complex technological arguments could be raised as to exactly who was at fault in accidents involving semi autonomous vehicles”.

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