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Self-driving cars: Companies not the users should be responsible if autonomous vehicles crash, watchdog proposes

People in a self-driving car should not be responsible if it crashes, legal watchdogs have proposed.

The Law Commission of England and Wales, and the Scottish Law Commission, want legal protections to be introduced for owners of self-driving cars if anything goes wrong with the automation.

This could include occurrences like speeding or running a red light.

However, whoever is in the driver’s seat should still be responsible for things like insurance and children wearing seatbelts, the commissions said.

A revolution in travel

The watchdogs want the organisation or company which gained authorisation for the technology to be responsible for the driving aspects of self-driving cars.

Public Law Commissioner Nicholas Paines QC said Britain has an “unprecedented opportunity to promote public acceptance of automated vehicles”.

Scottish Law Commissioner David Bartos said the proposals focused on “ensuring safety and accountability while encouraging innovation and development”.

Transport minister Trudy Harrison said the introduction and development of self-driving vehicles in the UK “has the potential to revolutionise travel, making everyday journeys safer, easier and greener”.

She continued: “This government has been encouraging development and deployment of these technologies to understand their benefits.

“However, we must ensure we have the right regulations in place, based upon safety and accountability, in order to build public confidence.”

Read more: Are driverless cars coming to British roads?

Transition to self-driving vehicles is ‘fraught with risk’

Completely self-driving cars are not yet legal on the roads of the UK, although some vehicles with autonomous features are in development.

In April 2021 the Department for Transport announced hands-free driving in vehicles with lane-keeping technology would be allowed on congested motorways at speeds of up to 37mph.

Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer at road safety organisation Thatcham Research, which consulted for the report, warned the transition to self-driving vehicles is “fraught with risk”.

He said: “In the next 12 months, we’re likely to see the first iterations of self-driving features on cars in the UK.

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“It’s significant that the Law Commission report highlights the driver’s legal obligations and how they must understand that their vehicle is not yet fully self-driving.”

The UK, Welsh and Scottish governments can decide if they want to implement the Commissions’ advice.

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