Safety standards for autonomous vehicles should be high to ensure success

The minimum safety standard for an autonomous vehicle (AV) should be above that of the “average” human driver as to do anything less than this is to risk public confidence in this emergent technology, global law firm Kennedys has advised.

It said an AV should be able to drive at least as safely as a “reasonably competent and careful human driver” and, on many occasions, adopt a safer overall standard.

Responding to the third and final Law Commission consultation on a regulatory framework for AVs (which closed on 18 March 2021), the law firm said: “One of the most significant perceived benefits of the introduction of autonomous vehicles is the reduction of road traffic collisions.

“Surely therefore the appropriate standard should be an elevated standard, and safer than the average human. This would include better reaction times, the ability to assess the surrounding environment and potential hazards and so on.”

One key issue addressed in the consultation is the transition from the user in charge (UIC) to the AV mode and back – where vehicles are not entirely autonomous – and the point at which legal responsibility attaches to them.

Kennedys said it was “deeply concerned” about the idea that the UIC could be given a set period – 10 seconds has been mooted – to respond to any demand from the AV that they retake control of the vehicle in an emergency situation. While this might work on a straight, single-lane B-road, a quicker response would probably be needed on a motorway.

Ten seconds was also not always the fair amount of time to regain situational awareness, the response explained: “It depends heavily on the situation, the environment, the nature of the road, the speed of the vehicle and other factors.”

Kennedys said the starting point should be that the vehicle in autonomous mode should be able to respond as well as or far better to emergency situations than the UIC and “should not therefore trigger a transition demand in such situations”.

To suggest otherwise would be “self-defeating of the technology” by implying that human drivers were better in such situations.

More broadly, the law firm said the UIC “will need to maintain a certain level of monitoring and control, or at least attention, and will need to remain situate to the control device of the vehicle, usually the steering wheel”. There should be certain activities that drivers cannot do while the vehicle is in autonomous mode, an obvious one being sleeping.

There needs to be clear guidance as well about when liability switches between the driver and AV.

Niall Edwards, partner in the motor group at Kennedys, says:

Whilst we can see the need for transition demands to be sent when a vehicle is moving on or off certain road types, there is the sense within this consultation that the AV may be sending transition demands back to the UIC in perhaps too wide a set of emergency circumstances.

We believe that the correct approach and the first rule would be to start with the ambition that an AV can and will respond to all emergency situations in at least as safe a manner as a human driver, if not better.” 

He adds: “If this consultation concludes that there are a range of emergency situations where the AV cannot cope and has to hand back control to the user, this will impact negatively on the public’s view of the efficacy and safety of the technology.”

Deborah Newberry, Head of Corporate and Public Affairs at Kennedys, says: “The Law Commission has done admirable work over the past three years in looking at how AVs should be regulated, and we found much in its proposals to commend.

“There are a lot of difficult decisions to make but our own research has highlighted how important it will be to monitor the views of the public during this process. Central to that is understanding and overcoming issues of trust. 

“Government-led education is required to avoid the very real possibility that the public will take a negative view of autonomous vehicle technology, and thereby inhibit rollout and public uptake and trust.”

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