Driverless cars promise motorists hands-off journeys, which many hoped would allow them to have a few more pints in the pub before heading home.
But those planning to use their self-driving vehicle as a personal taxi service should be careful, as the government has announced legislation to ensure it is treated like drink driving.
Going over the limit, using your phone or taking a nap behind the wheel of futuristic cars will be illegal, according to documents published alongside the automated vehicles bill announced in the King’s speech this week.
Exceeding the limit, using the phone or taking a nap behind the wheel of autonomous vehicles will be illegal under new legislation (file image)
The Law Commission has already produced a draft proposal for legislation on the legal use of cars and driverless vehicles on British roads.
Drivers must “remain roadworthy” while their car is on the road, and there must be a “user in charge” who can take control if the self-driving system asks them to do so.
Drivers will still need to be in the front seat and have a driver’s license to operate their vehicles, and failure to do so could expose them to prosecution.
Who will be legally responsible if a self-driving car crashes?
The Law Commission’s proposal published in 2022 outlines plans for the legal framework to consider drivers differently when automated driving features are in operation.
When an autonomous driving system is active, it recommends that a human being in the driver’s seat legally becomes a “user in charge” and would avoid prosecution if the vehicle drives itself dangerously or causes an accident.
This would mean immunity from a wide range of violations, such as exceeding speed limits and running red lights when the autonomous driving function is in operation.
Instead, the company or body that obtained authorization to use the technology would become an ‘Autonomous Driving Entity’ (ADSE) and would be responsible for the vehicle’s actions before the law.
After a collision, ASDE should work with a regulatory body to prevent recurrences by providing data to understand who was at fault and who is responsible.
ADSE could also face sanctions if regulators deem it necessary.
A user in charge would still be required to maintain some tasks, such as having a driver’s license, having insurance, and making sure occupants wear seat belts. And they will have to stay within the drink-driving limit.
They will not be able to use their phones and “must still be able to regain dynamic control of driving; for example, they must be awake and in the driver’s seat.”
The legislation will include specific legal protection for passengers, holding the company that builds the vehicle responsible for their driving.
This includes any fatal accident in which the vehicle may be involved, with the manufacturers who have developed the technology and not the drivers being responsible.
However, users must ensure that vehicle occupants wear seat belts and that the car is roadworthy.
In cases where the car is operated remotely, such as in driverless taxi or bus services, the requirements will not apply.
This was stated by a spokesperson for the multi-party parliamentary group (APPG) in favor of autonomous vehicles. The Telegraph The legislation “could mean AV (automated vehicle) companies operating commercial services to the public by the end of the decade, as regulations go through consultation and testing processes.”
Meanwhile, AA president Edmund King said: “Plans to introduce autonomous vehicles provide the opportunity to travel more efficiently, but safety must be paramount when they are deployed on UK roads.”
Last month, the Local Government Association’s Future Crime Horizon Scan said there was “particular concern” about driverless vehicles.
He warned in a report that terrorists could hack them to use them as weapons in horrific attacks.
Audiovisual companies have insisted that their systems will ultimately be safer than human-operated vehicles, eliminating the risk of human error.
They are also expected to reduce the number of accidents involving drink drivers, who account for one in five deaths on UK roads.
Cruise, a driverless robotaxi, drives down a street in San Francisco, California, in August
The United Kingdom became the first European country to allow drivers on public roads to let go of the steering wheel in April, after the Government gave permission to manufacturer Ford to activate its BlueCruise system.
Although users can take their hands off the wheel, an infrared camera checks that they keep their eyes on the road in case human intervention is necessary.
The government plans to have autonomous vehicles on UK roads within the next decade, although they are still in the testing phase.
New legislation is expected to allow delivery services to use them from 2026.