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Automated vehicles back on the parliamentary agenda

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By Peter Allchorne and Michael McCabe


Published 08 November 2023


On 7th November, King Charles III delivered his first King's Speech, and what is highly likely to be the current government's final agenda before the next General Election. In it, the government proposed to bring 21 Bills before Parliament.

Whilst it is disappointing that, with the exception of unlicensed pedicabs, today's speech made no specific mention of other forms of (road) transport, including electric vehicles and e-scooters, we welcome the proposed introduction of an Automated Vehicles Bill during this parliamentary session, which will build upon the excellent work of the Law Commission of England & Wales and the Scottish Law Commission who reported in January 2022.

The proposed bill has been trailed as providing a global leading legislative framework for automated (otherwise known as self-drive) vehicles with road safety at its core, and which it says will encourage investment in the UK, creating jobs and promoting economic growth in a sector that is anticipated to be worth £650 billion worldwide by 2035.

So far so good, but how far will the Automated Vehicles Bill actually build upon the existing primary legislation in, assuming it is afforded sufficient parliamentary time amid a packed legislative agenda in the final year before a General Election? The King's Speech alludes to implementation of some of the key recommendations within the Law Commission's report, such as:

  • Setting the threshold for self-driving vehicles in law, such that only those that are capable of abiding by all road rules without human control or monitoring;
  • Holding corporate entities behind self-drive vehicles firmly accountable and protecting 'users in charge' from prosecution when the vehicle is in self-drive mode;
  • Creating an in-use regulator to promote safety standards at all times;
  • Formulating a process for investigating and learning from incidents involving self-drive vehicles; and
  • Clamping down on misleading marketing by manufacturers of self-drive vehicles, ensuring a clear distinction is drawn between driver assistance and vehicle automation.

In so doing, it addresses some of the fundamental requirements for an effective legislative framework for self-drive vehicles, including a safety framework, clear legal liability and consumer education. However, there is no mention of the role of road infrastructure and data (both data sharing and data security), which are fundamental to moving the automated vehicle agenda from theory to reality.

Should the Bill get through Parliament there will need to be substantive industry stakeholder consultation thereafter to help shape the various regulations that will underpin it, and each of these will require time to draft and implement.

How far the Automated Vehicles Bill will go to kickstart the list of legally classified self-drive vehicles remains to be seen, but with the exception of a few nuanced use cases such as passenger transport solutions which are segregated from other vehicles and vulnerable road users, and perhaps automated valet parking, the utopian vision of a fully 'driverless car' still feels like a pipedream.