The digitalisation of motor vehicle functions has been growing for decades. Recent years have seen the introduction of augmented reality navigation instructions, laser headlights that turn off individual elements of the beam to avoid dazzling oncoming traffic, and parked vehicles recording people or vehicles nearby and sending the footage direct to a mobile phone.
But it's self-driving technology which might have the greatest impact on the automotive industry. The Society of Automotive Engineers' 2014 Levels of Automated Driving standard consists of 6 categories, from 0 for no automation, to 1 and 2 representing 'driver support features' and 3, 4 and 5 categorised as 'automated driving features'. Level 5 is full, true automation, with the vehicle able to drive under all conditions, without a driver and without the need for physical controls.
While it looks unlikely that any manufacturer is close to producing a road-ready level 5 capable vehicle, countries such as the UK, China and North America have automated driving projects and trials well underway.
In the UK, automated-driving technologies are restricted to 'level 2' assistive systems only. However, the Department for Transport announced earlier this year that the law will change to re-categorise cars with Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) as legally autonomous vehicles. They will need to meet GB-type approval and show "no evidence to challenge the vehicle's ability to self-drive". We could see this legal change in definition, in other words a move to 'level 3', before the end of 2021.
In practice, the change allows vehicles to drive themselves in lane for brief periods without requiring the full attention of the driver. Instead, drivers may be permitted to read books, watch videos and so on, provided they are able to re-take control of the vehicle within 10 seconds of an alert. Moreover, the use of ALKS will be limited to vehicles travelling at a maximum speed of 37mph.
In the future, it is hoped that self-driving vehicles will be able to anticipate and respond to hazards with skill equal to or exceeding that of a human driver. The potential benefits are clear: as Mike Hawes, Chief Executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, has said, "automated driving systems could prevent 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives over the next decade through their ability to reduce the single largest cause of road accidents - human error."
But there are important questions about the safety of these new technologies, including whether assisted-driving technology and/or equipment can detect vulnerable road users. For example, a 2017 test by the Netherlands Vehicle Authority on the capabilities of Adaptive Cruise Control to detect motorcyclists found the results to be unsatisfactory. The European Association of Motorcycle Manufacturers also notes that some driver handbooks contain statements such as "the system may not detect small vehicles like motorcycles".
The transition period will inevitably cause risks for other road users. The Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 has been described as 'the world's first driverless car insurance legislation', extending compulsory motor insurance to 'automated vehicles' as well as the driver.
The act sets out the following important provisions for accidents" 1) the victim's direct right will be against the motor insurer, and the insurer in turn has a right of recovery against the party responsible for the accident; 2) if the vehicle is self-driving at a time of the accident, both the third party and the policyholder should be compensated (with limited exceptions); and 3) there will be no liability for the insurer or owner to the person in charge of the vehicle if they allowed that vehicle to self-drive where it wasn't appropriate or safe.
So the early foundations have been laid to assist with road traffic collisions involving self-driving vehicles. A third party who suffers injury or financial losses caused by a self-driving car has some certainty of process and recovery.
More legal change is planned too, with 2021 being the last of a 3-year project by the Law Commissions of England & Wales and Scotland to review the legal framework for automated vehicles. The final report is expected soon.
As cars begin to drive themselves, challenges to road safety and the process of restitution will continue to emerge and will require well-considered regulation. The Association of Consumer Support Organisations (ACSO) will continue to represent the interests and safety of all road users and those who work on their behalf.
Author: Daniel Bates, ACSO secondee and trainee solicitor at Minster Law.