Autonomous vehicles law and regulation in this new area

Thursday, May 28, 2020 - 08:19
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With new 5G technology pushing digitisation in all industries to its next phase, the future of the transport and fleet industry is certainly one to watch. Just recently, it was announced that autonomous vehicles will be able to use this network to communicate with each other, alerting other vehicles about hazards in the area. However, technology is a constantly evolving phenomenon which often develops at a rate faster than the laws designed to regulate it and implement it successfully into UK infrastructure. With AVs being an exciting and inevitable aspect of the fleet industry’s future, it’s vital that fleet managers ensure that they are fully in-the-know on the driver safety and insurance implications this will have for their business.

Autonomous vehicles

Liability of road accidents is one of the biggest concerns facing the fleet managers in the near-future as the industry incorporates AVs into its fundamental operations, and there’s no “one size fits all approach”. Manufacturers could be responsible when incidents arise due to product faults, but if an accident occurs due to a failure of coded technology, it is also possible that the programmer may be liable. Even in manual cars with a self-drive feature, the driver can still be deemed responsible in they don’t take back control in dangerous situations. This is a crucial area of the law which needs to keep updated with the evolving technology. Fully automated vehicles with no driver or driving capabilities are on the horizon, and this raises liability concerns when no person in the vehicle is legally responsible for its safety.

As technology develops, so must the legislation, and this absolutely applies to insurance policies also. The insurance industry rightfully backs developments in the transport industry that bring massive public benefits; bringing huge potential for reduction in accidents, and for transforming our entire transport ecosystem for the better, insurers are embracing AVs and showing commitment and creativity in thinking through how the issues of liability, and therefore cover, will work.  With the insurance landscape shifting from individual liability to manufacturers, it is predicted that AVs will be cheaper for fleet managers to insure than manually-driven vehicles by the end of this decade – an exciting prospect for all, with increased safety being the driving force.

And legislation is gradually catching up. In 2018, the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act introduced a Single Insurance Policy concept thanks to the Association of British Insurers’ lobbying efforts – which means drivers are now covered by one single policy when switching between manual and automated functions of an AV, rather than having to have a separate policy to cover driving AVs.  This minimises disputes on liability, ensuring claimants receive their compensation more quickly.

It is exciting to see how the legislation will develop in the area, and the Law Society’s consultation into AVs expected next year gives us some positive indicators on the horizon, such as access for people with disabilities for example.

One of the largest risks facing an infrastructure dependent on technology is cyber attacks and cyber terrorism. Last year, the United Nations Economic Commision for Europe (UNECE) began to outline all potential cyber risks and vulnerabilities facing society, with accompanying guidance – and gave particular attention to AVs, promising to ensure passenger safety is prioritised in the event of a cyber attack. With this in mind, understanding the risks which cyber attacks could bring will be a key aspect of a fleet manager’s toolkit. Zenzic’s 2019 roadmap report into the future of AVs in the UK suggest that cyber security evaluations are expected to be a vital aspect of every MOT test of the future.  An important point for fleet managers to take on board is that drivers have responsibility for installing the latest security software updates – and failing to do this could invalidate their insurance cover for cyber breaches, which could have unprecedented financial consequences, and fleet managers must keep these risks front of mind and make sure they have appropriate systems and routines in place.

The prospect of a digital transport network with AVs at the heart of it is certainly an exciting one –  transport will be significantly safer, insurance will be cheaper, which together with the associated drop in fuel consumption, promises a positive step in eco-efficient transport. Fleet transportation has a technological revolution on its horizon, but it is vital that fleet managers are in-the-know and prepared for this transition to AVs, as they will have additional duties and responsibilities alongside all the exciting gains.

Author: Michael Brooks, Legal Director at Corclaim


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