EY claims in a recent report that it will be 20 years before autonomous vehicles become part of daily life. It is the latest in a long line of attempts to predict when self-driving cars will reach a tipping point – previous estimates have ranged from 2019 (KPMG and the Center for Automotive Research) to 2017-2020 (Google).

In its report ‘Who’s in the driving seat?’, EY foresees controlled, autonomous vehicle-only environments on our streets and moderate levels of automation at low to medium speeds within five to 10 years. In 10 to 20 years, it predicts we’ll see a less restricted environment and a higher level of automation at medium to high speeds. Only beyond 20 years does it envisage no constraints, with large, connected vehicle networks, on-demand mobility and fleet services, and customised consumer autonomous vehicles.

While the technology that would enable these features is evolving rapidly, legal developments are lagging behind. Issues from data protection to product liability are yet to be addressed, and without meaningful change at a global level EY’s estimate could, if anything, be seen as optimistic.

There are already autonomous features available in mainstream cars. They can drive themselves in slow traffic and park independently at the swipe of a screen. Yet many car-makers are also shipping models that can safely drive themselves at higher speeds than the law currently allows, and while technology continues to accelerate faster than legal change, it is likely to be some time before self-driving vehicles start appearing in the showroom.

The development of autonomous vehicles presents the law with considerable challenges that governments, industry groups, auto manufacturers and suppliers around the world are in the process of addressing. In the US, several states (including California, Florida and Nevada) have acted to encourage the development of self-driving vehicles by enacting legislation that expressly permits their operation/testing on public roads under certain conditions, and more states are considering similar legislation. The US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) has created guidelines and recommendations for state drafters of legislation and regulations governing the licensing, testing and operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads in order to encourage the safe development and implementation of automated vehicle technology.

In Europe, the first steps to set the legal framework for autonomous driving have also been taken. Several EU governments (including Germany, Austria, Belgium, France and Italy) have proposed to amend the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic in a way that would make autonomous systems permissible – if those systems can be overridden or switched off by the driver. In its current version, the Convention requires that ‘every moving vehicle or combination of vehicles shall have a driver’ and also that ‘every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle’. The proposed amendment could come into effect in early 2016, and would allow the governments of the contracting states of the convention to amend their national road traffic laws, furtherpaving the way for the adoption of sefl-driving technology. 

What these developments show is that before vehicles without pedals or steering wheels are a common sight on our streets, the law must get out of the slow lane.