The UK Government has recently launched a consultation on proposals to amend the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 (Regulations) and the Highway Code. The proposed changes will clarify the legal position for use of features in Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) and should bring the UK law in line with recent updates to international rules.

There can be no doubt that ongoing development and improvement of CAVs will continue to significantly change the landscape of the automotive industry and driving as we know it. A rolling programme of reforms in this area is planned with close industry involvement. This approach aims to facilitate the introduction of innovative technologies to strike a balance between enabling their intended use while also ensuring safety and certainty for all road users.

Smartphones and other connected devices, such as smartwatches are at the heart of CAV innovation. Unsurprisingly, these devices are key means of operating vehicle assistance systems and accessing related features and functions. For example, many vehicle manufacturers have applications that allow users to switch on their vehicle engines remotely (e.g. for pre-heating or cooling the cabin). These apps can also confirm vehicle location and provide access to other real-time information such as fuel quantity, consumption, range and odometer readings. This type of control and accessibility through connected channels may soon become commonplace across most car marques and will provide many welcome benefits for vehicle users.

The latest consultation focusses specifically on remote control parking and motorway driver assistance systems (which can take full control of vehicle position and speed on high-speed roads). It proposes the following amendments:

  • Inclusion of an exemption in the Regulations to permit the use of hand-held and mobile communications devices as a means of performing remote control parking manoeuvres (subject to a 6-metre operation limit when users are outside of a vehicle); and

  • Additions to The Highway Code to confirm that drivers:

(i) may activate remote control parking "using a legally compliant parking application or device in an appropriate way which does not endanger others."; and

(ii) remain wholly responsible for their vehicles and if using any advanced driver assistance systems, must exercise full control over those systems at all times and use them only in accordance with manufacturer or developer instructions.

The consultation emphasises that the intent behind the proposed reforms is to provide clarity on the appropriate use of such technology. The proposals should in no way be regarded as watering down existing offences for use of mobile devices when behind the wheel.

Of course, as CAV technology and capability continues to evolve at rapid pace, opportunities for blurring the lines between legal and illegal mobile device use in an automotive context will almost certainly increase and the law may lag behind. A common-sense approach by vehicle users should sit alongside further innovation and ongoing legal reform so that the right balance can be achieved.

A copy of the full consultation may be accessed here. Responses are invited by midnight on Tuesday 30 January. If you would like to contribute, please click here.