The government has introduced the first legislation to facilitate the introduction of driverless car technology to our roads.

The Vehicle Transport and Aviation Bill plugs a potential gap in insurance coverage when a vehicle is operating in autonomous mode. This is a useful step forward in enabling the uptake of driverless cars, however much remains to be done from a regulatory perspective before genuinely autonomous vehicles become a reality on our roads.

The legal framework for driverless car technology

Following a consultation on regulatory and insurance changes, the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles’ recommended a rolling programme of regulatory reform. This will ensure an appropriate legal framework is in place to enable the introduction of driverless car technology.

The Vehicle Transport and Aviation Bill will ensure that third parties are protected if they are involved in an accident with a vehicle that is being driven autonomously. Currently, under English law, the requirement is for the driver of a vehicle to hold insurance, rather than insuring the vehicle itself. The government’s consultation produced discussion around the potential gap where the vehicle, rather than the driver, is in control.

Single insurer model

The Vehicle Transport and Aviation Bill sets out the government's preferred "single insurer" model, under which drivers will buy a policy which is activated by incidents for which they are responsible (as human driver) or for which the vehicle is responsible (while driving in autonomous mode). There are restrictions around when insurers will be liable, including where the software has not been upgraded or has been the subject of an unauthorised upgrade. The intention of the provisions is to ensure that speedy and efficient recourse is available to third parties involved in an incident with an autonomous vehicle. Insurers and OEMs can determine liability for product liability issues behind the scenes.

The Vehicle Transport and Aviation Bill partially unlocks one aspect of the legislative barriers to uptake of the driverless car technology, however, significant steps need to be taken in other areas before the full potential of driverless cars can be deployed. Further steps include:

  • provisions for effective data sharing to enable insurers and OEMs to allocate liability
  • changes to legislation relating to type approval and construction.

The government intends to address these issues as part of its rolling programme of reform.