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The Rise of Vehicle Autonomy in the UK: Implications for Road Traffic Accidents

Medico Legal

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

In February 2019 the Ministry of Transport updated the Code of Practice for Automated Vehicle Trialling and gave a press release announcing its aim 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, reported by the New York Times, 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, under the Code of Practice, 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 Opinium 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 set out 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 of 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.


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, highlighted by the recent issues and fatalities. One concern which arises is regarding potential questions over the quality of the environment scanners (and their effectiveness in bad weather). It also remains to be seen how the technology will cope with lane markings and road signs differing around the world. There is also the natural reluctance of people to relinquish control and trust their safety completely to a robot, particularly when eye contact and driver interaction still governs a significant part of driving decisions in busy and queuing traffic.

In such situations, where an autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicle has been involved in a Road Traffic Accident, it is unlikely to be a straightforward issue in determining any finding of fault. At present liability for a non autonomous vehicle will generally lie with the driver of the vehicle at fault. However, where a driver has relinquished some or all control of the vehicle arguments are likely to arise directed at other involved parties.

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 clearly potential for complex arguments on liability in Road Traffic Accidents involving these vehicles. There could well be issues 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 and/or the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982.

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 and the Code of Practice. It is easy to foresee a myriad of scenarios when complex technological arguments (potentially relating to the manufacture, calibration and maintenance) could be raised as to exactly who was at fault in accidents involving semi autonomous vehicles”.

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