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The Automated Vehicles Bill [HL] 2023-2024, Bill 167, was introduced in the Lords on 8 November 2023, and will have its second reading in the Commons on 5 March 2024.

The Bill is intended to set the legal framework for the safe deployment of self-driving vehicles in Great Britain.

It further clarifies issues of legal liability in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018, and implements recommendations from a four-year review of automated vehicle regulation carried out by the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission, published in January 2022.

The Government published a key policy paper on this topic in August 2022, Connected and automated mobility 2025: realising the benefits of self-driving vehicles  in response to the Law Commissions’ recommendations. It outlined its legislative plans to implement them and create a regulatory framework for self-driving vehicles.

Defining self-driving vehicles

The Government has defined a self-driving vehicle as:

One that has at least one self-driving feature, delivering sufficiently high levels of automation that it meets a legally defined threshold and is capable of safely driving itself with no human input. Such features could provide self-driving capability for all or part of a journey.

However, the Bill uses the Law Commissions’ preferred term of ‘automated vehicles’ (AV) instead of ‘driverless’ or ‘self-driving’ vehicles.

Under the Bill, if a vehicle successfully passes a ‘self-drive test’ (details of which would be determined in secondary legislation), it would become an ‘authorised automated vehicle’ in one of two categories:

  • Some AVs will have a ‘user-in-charge’ (UiC) function. This means they would have functionality to both be driven or to drive itself for some or all of the journey. When such a vehicle is driving itself, the driver is not responsible for how the vehicle drives, though they retain other responsibilities such as insurance and vehicle roadworthiness. When the vehicle is being driven, it is treated as a conventional vehicle.
  • Alternatively, a ‘no-user-in-charge’ (NUiC) journey would be one where the AV drives itself for the whole journey. No occupant is a driver during the journey and, in some cases, it may not be possible for the vehicle to be traditionally driven, as it may not have a steering wheel or other conventional controls. A licensed operator would monitor the vehicle during the journey and ensure it is properly insured and maintained.

Liability for road offences

If a vehicle passes the self-drive test to be an ‘authorised AV’ (with or without user functions), this would then shift criminal liability for road traffic offences away from the AV’s passengers, and onto the regulated licenced operators who would become responsible for the AV’s journey.

The Bill would allow for new statutory inspectors to be appointed with powers to investigate road incidents involving AVs on a ‘no-blame’ basis, and to request information from licensed operators and the police. The Bill would also make it a criminal offence to market a vehicle as self-driving if it was not an authorised AV.

Permits for automated passenger services

The Bill would allow the Secretary of State for Transport in England, or the relevant minister in Scotland or Wales, to grant permits for automated passenger services (or trials of them) that would disapply existing legislation relating to taxi, bus and private hire vehicles.

Digitalising Traffic Regulation Orders

Under the Bill, local authorities in England would be required to provide information on Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) to the Secretary of State in a digital format.

TRO information describes local road restrictions such as speed limits, bus lanes and parking bays. This would enable AVs to have an accurate and up-to-date understanding of the road network. This requirement does not extend to Scotland or Wales where local government is a devolved matter.

Reaction to the Bill

After the Bill was announced in the 2023 Kings Speech, it was welcomed by stakeholders such as law firms and insurance companies for creating greater clarity for legal liability around AV use.

Progress in the Lords

Both the Labour transport spokesperson Lord Tunnicliffe and the Liberal Democrat spokesperson Baroness Randerson welcomed the Bill.

The Government passed seven amendments to the Bill at report stage. One amendment expanded the high-level “safety ambition statement”, which aims to provide a focus for Government and industry as self-driving vehicles are developed, and to support public acceptance. This statement was amended so that it currently reads:

(a)authorised automated vehicles will achieve a level of safety equivalent to, or higher than, that of careful and competent human drivers, and

(b)road safety in Great Britain will be better as a result of the use of authorised automated vehicles on roads than it would otherwise be. 

Extent and commencement

The Bill generally extends and applies to England, Wales and Scotland, with the exception of Clauses 54(2) and 93 which do not extend to Scotland. Clause 54(2) creates a new offence of causing danger to road-users resulting in an AV killing or seriously injuring someone.

Clause 93, which requires local authorities to submit information on TROs, extends to England and Wales but would only have practical application in England.

The Bill would make two consequential amendments extending to Northern Ireland but otherwise does not apply there. The Government has said that any AV that was authorised for use in Great Britain under this Bill would “be treated as conventional and the driver would be liable for its behaviour” in Northern Ireland.”

The Bill has 35 clauses granting regulation-making powers to the Secretary of State, and in some cases to the devolved administrations too. The Government has produced a scoping note explaining how and when it intends to use these powers.

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