Kennedys calls for safety ambition for self-driving vehicles to go further

The proposed safety ambition for self-driving vehicles is welcomed, but wherever possible the aim should be to go further to fully utilise the capabilities of the technology or risk losing public support.

These comments were made in response to a government consultation – ‘Self-driving vehicles – new safety ambition’ – which proposes that such vehicles should be held to “the equivalent standard of behaviour as that expected of human drivers; competent and careful.”

Whilst we agree, the technology is such that autonomous vehicles will have “a number of advantages over their human counterparts” and so the aim should be, wherever possible, to strive for and to apply a higher safety standard than proposed.

We have also previously raised concerns about the potential in some circumstances for self-driving vehicles to seemingly be held to or required in some way under regulation, to meet a conceivably lower standard of safe driving than a safe and competent human driver. In response to an earlier government call for evidence on the safe use of automated lane keeping system technology on motorways, we expressed our concern at some aspects of the ‘minimum risk manoeuvre’. This was particularly in the context of a self-driving vehicle coming to a stop in lane (rather than seeking ‘safe harbour’ as a human driver would be required to, if possible), and for this to be considered a safe behaviour. By contrast, a human driver might otherwise be found negligent or criminally negligent in similar circumstances.

Another example would be a self-driving vehicle leaving the scene of an accident because it had not registered an impact and whether a person, who may be charged with a criminal offence if driving, would be treated differently if relying on self-driving mode.

We do appreciate that a balance must be struck as technologies are developed to ensure that innovation is not stifled, but it would be harmful to public attitudes and to building a citable book of ‘evidence of safety’ to apply different and lower standards to self-driving vehicles in comparison to human-driven ones.

If the public sense is that either this emergent technology is not as capable or safe as a competent and safe human driver (or indeed safer), particularly in emergency situations, or that standards or expectations are seemingly lower,…it seems inevitable that this would understandably significantly delay the adoption.

Niall Edwards, partner and motor litigation specialist at Kennedys, also urged the government to take a wider view when developing any legal and regulatory framework.

“An evolving transport landscape that includes recent changes to the Highway Code (with further changes anticipated), the potential regulation of e-scooters, and possible changes to driver licensing mean that the safety standard of self-driving vehicles cannot be considered in isolation. Rather, it must be considered in the context of this background of ongoing change,” he says.

We previously carried out a significant global study into public attitudes towards the introduction of autonomous vehicles.

You can read our future of transport report here.