The UK’s Automated Vehicles Act - unlocking opportunities for UK investment and innovation in the automotive sector

The Automated Vehicles Act 2024 received Royal Assent on 20 May 2024. Its swift motion through parliament in an election year has been a relief to many, having been first introduced to the House of Lords in November 2023. It provides a framework for the safe integration of autonomous vehicles (AVs) into society (potentially as early as 2026) and paves the way for further investment opportunities in the UK market alongside growing public support and consumer optimism.

The UK already has a strong reputation for self-driving technologies. According to the Government, approximately 70% of global automotive sector companies that source self-driving technologies do so from the UK market. It is hoped that the Act will build further confidence in the UK as a global leader in this high-growth industry. 

Scope 

The Act has three main aims with regards to self-driving vehicles: 

  • to create a rigorous safety framework; 
  • to clarify legal liability; and
  • to protect consumers. 

Safety Framework and Standards

The Act introduces an authorisation process for self-driving vehicles. AVs will be required to undergo a self-driving test to ensure safety benchmarks are met. These will be outlined in the Secretary of State’s Statement on Safety Principles. 

Crucially, AVs must enhance road safety, instead of contributing to current safety standards. The safety principles that will be included in the Statement on Safety Principles will be centred around “securing that authorised automated vehicles will achieve a level of safety equivalent to, or higher than, that of careful and competent human drivers”. They also require the Secretary of State to consult organisations that appear to them to represent the interests of AV manufacturers, road users, and road safety. The Act also gives the Secretary of State powers to amend existing legislative regimes (such as type approval legislation) to achieve the aims of the framework legislation.

Legal liability 

New concepts are incorporated in the Act which address the delineation of legal liability. These are outlined below. 

Authorised self-driving entities (ASDEs):

Once a vehicle successfully passes the self-driving test, it will be classified as an ‘authorised automated vehicle’. For every authorisation granted, there must be a designated entity known as the ‘authorised self-driving entity’ (ASDE). This entity has ultimate responsibility for ensuring the AV consistently complies with the requirements of the self-driving test and any accompanying requirements that the Secretary of State imposes. These entities will be the companies developing the cars (or potentially the software suppliers) and not individual users.

User-in-charge (UiC):

The Act makes a distinction between authorised AVs equipped with ‘user-in-charge’ (UiC) features and those that do not. UiC features mean those where a user can intervene during a journey. When a vehicle has these features there will be specific authorisation criteria around the requests that trigger user intervention and the transition periods during which intervention is required. How the transition requests are delivered, the duration of transition periods, and how the vehicle safely handles situations where a user fails to intervene are addressed in the Act. 

A non-UiC journey is one where the AV drives itself for the whole or any part of a journey. In these cases, the ASDE will be legally liable in the case of an incident. AVs that undertake no-UiC journeys will need a licensed operator. The licensed operator’s role will be to ensure the safe operation of the vehicle. They will be responsible for matters like ensuring the vehicle is insured and detecting and resolving issues during the journey, for example responding to breakdowns. Ultimately, however, the ASDE retains responsibility for how the vehicle drives. 

The Act grants immunity from liability to UiCs in specific circumstances, outlines exceptions to immunity, and establishes when a user will be liable as the legal driver of the vehicle. To avoid unfair responsibility being placed on UiCs, ultimate responsibility for automated driving behaviour (when the non-UiC feature is engaged, or the engaged UiC feature fails to alert the UiC to take control) lies with the ASDE. This grants the UiC immunity from road traffic offences when the vehicle is driving itself.  When the vehicle is being driven by the UiC, it is treated as a conventional vehicle. The liability position as regards drive assist features (for example cruise control) remains the same, meaning the driver will continue to be liable for incidents that arise while using those features. 

Consumer protection 

Marketing

The Secretary of State has the power to regulate how self-driving cars are marketed. This is aimed at preventing consumers from being misled into believing a vehicle is fully self-driving when it actually just includes driver assistance features.

There is an outright prohibition on using specific terms, expressions, symbols, and marks other than for marketing authorised automated vehicles. There are also restrictions on the overall presentation of marketing communications to limit confusion regarding the varying degrees of autonomous capabilities.

Investigations

The Act provides the government with regulatory and enforcement powers – including the ability to conduct broad investigations if a self-driving car is found to be involved in a road traffic incident. The Act further provides for the modification of road traffic offences, so that they apply to the context of self-driving vehicles as they would apply to the driver of a standard car.

Sanctions

There will be new sanctions and penalties, including fines, requirements to take corrective action, suspension of operation and criminal offenses in serious cases.

Automated Passenger Services

AVs that carry passengers (for example, taxis), will need a permit from the Secretary of State. 

What’s next?

The Act is a framework piece of legislation which will be further developed through secondary legislation.  Consultations are due to commence this year with the view to regulations being finalised in 2025 and 2026. However, with the next general election being tabled for 4 July 2024, the precise timetable may be subject to change. 

Over the coming weeks, we will publish a more in-depth piece focusing on the safety regulation and legal liability issues, especially from the perspective of manufacturers, producers and/or supplies of automated systems so ‘watch this space’.  

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