The introduction of self-driving vehicles to UK roads will bring both opportunities and challenges for business. How will these impact on employment rights and responsibilities?
Job elimination vs Job creation
It is inevitable that certain industries will see job losses once driverless vehicles enter the market.
In particular, the need for skilled drivers will reduce significantly across all sectors, as will the demand for vehicle-related occupations such as mechanics and employees of petrol stations and breakdown cover providers.
A reduction in road congestion and vehicle accidents, however, will naturally lead to shorter commuting times, allowing people to spend more time either at work or at rest. Lateness due to unpredictable traffic conditions will diminish and individual productivity should increase. Similarly, from a business perspective, an entire fleet of trucks may be controlled by a single operator, improving delivery times and increasing business efficiency.
Whilst fewer skilled drivers will be needed, other jobs will be created in this new era of productivity. Predicting the business model of the future is always tricky but one certainty is that employers will need to assess carefully the implications for their workforce before making any strategic changes to their operations.
Employment law challenges on the horizon
Large scale redundancies and restructures for road haulage and logistics companies may be inevitable in the longer term but businesses should consider their future operational needs sooner rather than later to ensure that they stay ahead of the game.
Any redundancies made need to be justifiable in an Employment Tribunal, with evidence of a sound business case. Considering at an early stage what your future business model is likely to look like can help demonstrate that you are taking your responsibilities towards your staff seriously. High on that list should be whether driving staff can be redeployed into other areas of the business.
Given the potential numbers of drivers that may be affected, collective consultation is likely to apply to many redundancy situations and the penalty for failing to comply with collective consultation can be considerable. The Employment Tribunal can make a protective award of up to 90 days’ gross actual pay per dismissal and employers who fail to notify the Secretary of State of the pending dismissals within the requisite timeframe face the risk of a criminal conviction and unlimited fine.
The concomitant increase in productivity may lead to a recruitment need but careful thought must be given to what roles are required. If a company has a centrally-operated fleet of fully autonomous vehicles, who is needed to control this; a former driver, a software engineer or nobody at all?
Recruitment need is likely to be driven by the type of vehicles being operated – whether they are fully automated or have a degree of human control. Legal requirements, such as specific driving licence categories, will inevitably be a factor – are you going to need an experienced HGV driver to sit in your semi-autonomous articulated lorry? Only time will tell.
Travel time to and from first and last appointments of the day have recently been held to count as “working time” under the Working Time Directive for peripatetic staff. With this in mind, employers may want to give consideration to requiring these employees to carry out paperwork whilst travelling to and from these appointments in fully automated self-driving cars.
Agile working has also been on the increase in recent years and is likely to feature heavily in the workplaces of the future. How will autonomous vehicles impact this? With significant improvements to mobile networks, field sales agents may be able to literally “work on the go”, by making a driverless car their permanent workplace.
In the early days of automation, where vehicles are partially or conditionally automated, a human being will need to be capable of regaining control in certain circumstances. The health and safety implications of long driving hours may not be quite the same but consideration should be given to the type of vehicle being driven and it remains to be seen whether any amendment of current safety standards will be made – for example, changing tachograph rules.
Risk assessments will come into sharp focus, both for those companies operating self-driving cars and those who will be using manually-controlled vehicles as, during the early stages of automation, they will both be sharing the same road space. How will drivers, be they human or computerised, predict the behaviour of their counterparts in this partially-automated environment? Following the introduction of corporate manslaughter legislation in 2008, there has been greater scrutiny on employers whose vehicles are involved in fatal road collisions, with serious consequences if they have inadequate risk assessments or fail to appropriately manage their drivers’ working hours and rest breaks. Given that the new Sentencing Guidelines now suggest fines of up to £20m for large organisations found guilty of corporate manslaughter, risk management will be crucial.
Given that commuting time will be shorter and more predictable, lateness to work may not be as easily explained in the workplaces of the future. Persistent offenders may find themselves more quickly disciplined than they may have been in the past.
In the early stages of automation, when the driver must be ready to resume control of the vehicle, what happens if there is an accident due to lack of concentration? How does an employer balance its responsibility to its staff against its responsibility to other road users? Where the company is responsible for making sure that staff pay attention to the road, expected standards of behaviour will have to be made clear through training, as well as carefully drafted contracts and handbooks.
Any violation of these standards will have to be treated seriously through the company’s disciplinary policy but it may also be worth considering in advance whether it is necessary to monitor staff to check that they are fulfilling their function while ‘driving’. How is this best done? Installing CCTV, for example, introduces privacy issues that need to be considered carefully. Most obviously, staff will need to be told before cameras are installed and notified of how that data will be used.
The most striking issue relating to discrimination is whether it might be a reasonable adjustment for an employer to provide an autonomous vehicle to an employee as an ‘auxiliary aid’. Driverless cars will empower individuals who were unable to drive manually-controlled vehicles to have independence. It is conceivable that it would be a reasonable adjustment to provide access to such a vehicle in order to facilitate a disabled employee’s travel to work or to help them carry out their duties. This would have to be considered on a case by case basis.
Age discrimination is another area that will have to be treated carefully - with an ageing population, future applicants for roles in driverless vehicles may be over 65. Currently, anyone over 70 has to reapply for their driving licence every three years but this requirement may be entirely eliminated by the introduction of self-driving cars. It would therefore remain important not to make presumptions based on age, at either end of the spectrum, when considering applicants for roles or making decisions about existing employees’ abilities.
Car insurance premium costs will no doubt continue to have an impact on how businesses view applicants for driving roles, as it does now, although what that impact will be remains to be seen.
It is difficult to predict with any certainty how autonomous cars will be regulated and therefore how businesses will manage their fleets. What is certain, however, is that their introduction will bring fresh challenges for employers, who will need to balance their interests carefully where their workforce is concerned.