Are self-driving cars legal in the UK?

Published: 14 June 2022

  • New Automated Vehicles Act proposed
  • Drivers might not be responsible in a crash…
  • … if the self-driving system was active at the time

Self-driving cars are a big problem for UK legislators. There are a couple of cars on sale today (such as the Tesla Model S and Mercedes EQS) which could soon drive without human intervention – but full self-driving systems aren’t legal to use on UK roads just yet.

The Department for Transport has previously stated that self-driving cars could be ready for release by the end of 2022. One of the first systems to hit the roads will be automated lane-keeping (ALKS) which can control the position of the vehicle in a single lane. However, cars equipped with the technology will be limited to just 37mph (60km/h) and will need to pass UK type approval.

It might sound like the UK government is dragging its heels on the matter – but one of the main reasons for not rolling out the technology with greater enthusiasm is because lawmakers haven’t created a good enough set of rules for accountability when it all goes wrong.

That could soon change, though. The Law Commissions of England, Wales and Scotland published a joint report at the beginning of 2022 which recommended the introduction of a new Automated Vehicles Act. The act will provide a framework to separate cars into two camps – those that can drive themselves and those that feature technology to assist the driver, such as adaptive cruise control.

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Most importantly, this distinction has the capacity to remove responsibility from the driver in the event of an accident. So, if a car that falls into the former camp is involved in a crash (and the car or the driver can prove that self-driving features were active at the time) the legal accountability for the collision would fall to the manufacturer or the insurance company.

Naturally, this will also mean that a system will need to be added to self-driving cars which logs when the autonomous mode is active and relays information back to the manufacturer if any unsafe driving occurs during its uptime to help eliminate the bugs.

The Commissions have already relayed their report to Parliament and the Scottish Parliament. Now, it’s up to the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments to decide whether to accept their recommendations and introduce laws to enforce them. We’ll update you as soon as we have more information on the proceedings.

Could my car be prosecuted for motoring offences, then?

If the Law Commissions get their way, yes. But whether the car will pay the fines is another matter altogether. The proposal suggests that whoever’s sat in the driving seat would be immune from prosecution for offences such as exceeding the speed limit or running red lights when the car’s self-driving system is active. That’s because they’re no longer driving – they’d be a “user-in-charge.”

The driver/owner could still get booked for offences that don’t involve driving, though. So, they’d still be responsible for ensuring their vehicle is taxed, insured and MOT’d. It’d also be up to the human driver to make sure that any children on board have their seat belts fastened and any loads are secured in place before setting off.

The autonomous Nissan Leaf

Drivers could also be allowed to watch television in their cars once fully autonomous cars are rolled out, providing they retake control of the car when asked. Crucially though, they won’t be able to use their mobile phones. That’s because manufacturers can implement a system that automatically turns off the content being watched on the infotainment screen when the driver needs to retake control, forcing them to divert their attention back to the road. You can’t police a separate handheld device.

What have safety regulators got to say about the matter?

The renowned safety body Thatcham was consulted as part of the Commissions’ report. The company’s chief research strategy officer, Matthew Avery, said: “The transition to safe introduction of automation with self-driving capabilities is fraught with risk as we enter the early stages of adoption. Today’s report is a significant step, as it provides important legal recommendations and clarity for the safe deployment of vehicles with self-driving features onto the UK’s roads.

“In the next 12 months, we’re likely to see the first iterations of self-driving features on cars on UK roads. It’s significant that the Law Commission report highlights driver’s legal obligations, and they understand that their vehicle is not yet fully self-driving. It has self-driving features that, in the near future, will be limited to motorway use at low speeds.”

Mercedes accepts responsibility for accidents caused by its self-driving system

This was a significant legislative step towards getting autonomous cars on the road. Mercedes is gearing up to launch its new Level 3 self-driving technology on the new S-Class and EQS saloons – and, in early 2022, the brand confirmed that it was prepared to take the blame for accidents involving its cars when the self-driving system is engaged.

However, the company’s acceptance of liability falls within a limited set of parameters. Mercedes says it will only take the blame for an accident if it was directly caused by a fault with its technology. If the driver “fails to comply with their duty of care” (such as refusing to retake control of the car when prompted), they will be responsible for the resulting damage.

From launch, Mercedes’s Drive Pilot system will only work within geo-fenced areas on the German motorway network at speeds up to 60km/h (around 37mph) – but these limitations could be lifted once Mercedes has proved to legislators that the system works reliably.

Mercedes S-Class with Drive Pilot

As Drive Pilot is a Level 3 system, the driver will be able to take their hands off the wheel and allow the car to assume total control of its functions. Mercedes even says that owners will be able to perform “ancillary tasks” on the car’s infotainment system, such as replying to emails, watching a film or online shopping. Smartphones aren’t allowed for reasons mentioned above.

Mercedes is the first manufacturer in the world to meet the legal requirements for a Level 3 self-driving system, beating the autonomous pioneer Tesla to the punch. The German government granted Mercedes approval for the technology in late 2021 – and the first cars equipped with Drive Pilot went on sale in early 2022.

By Luke Wilkinson

Bauer Automotive staff writer. Unhealthy obsession with classic Minis and old Alfas. Impenetrable Cumbrian accent