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UK legislates for a future of driverless and electric cars

New legislation designed to support the use of electric and driverless cars has been proposed by the UK government.19 Oct 2017

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill was introduced before the UK parliament on Wednesday.

The Bill makes provision for the registration of all driverless cars in the UK, and addresses how liability for accidents involving such vehicles should be apportioned.

The approach adopted in relation to liability and insurance reflects previous proposals that the government tabled in the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill earlier this year. That Bill did not progress into law before parliament was dissolved for the general election, and so was abandoned.

According to the new Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, insurers would generally be liable for damage stemming from an accident caused by an automated vehicle "when driving itself" where the vehicle is insured and "an insured person or any other person suffers damage as a result of the accident".

Where driverless cars are not insured, owners would be left liable for the damage stemming from accidents.

Insurers can exclude or limit their liability for damage if insured individuals make "software alterations" that they are prohibited to make under their insurance policy, or if they do no install "safety-critical software updates" that they at least "ought reasonably to know" are "safety-critical".

Where insurers are liable to make payment for damages to those impacted by an accident, they have a right to raise a claim against those responsible for the accident for recovery of the money they have paid out.

The global market for connected and autonomous vehicle technologies could be worth £970 billion by 2035, according to a recent study commissioned by the UK government.

In April, the government announced that driverless cars will be tested on UK motorways before the end of 2019. Technology designed to help heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) travel in close proximity to one another is also to be trialled in live trials on major UK roads before the end of 2018.

Connected and autonomous vehicles expert Ben Gardner of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "One of the central legal issues facing autonomous vehicles is that of liability. In a world where the vast majority of accidents are caused by human error, allocating liability when humans are taken out of the equation altogether needs addressing." 

"Developing a new insurance framework for automated vehicles helps to address these issues. It will now be necessary for the government to work with the industry to develop this framework to identify and plug any gaps so that everybody has certainty as to where liability will rest in the event that an accident does happen," Gardner said.

"The government has already made clear that it will put in place a rolling programme of reform to introduce new or amend existing legislation to address some of the legal issues posed by automated vehicles. It will be interesting to see if further reforms will be made to permit the use of vehicles with more advanced autonomous features on UK roads. These features could allow drivers to remove their hands from the wheel and face away from the direction of travel throughout the journey. Beginning to think about issues such as these now could help the UK to steal a further march on other jurisdictions in the race towards a fully autonomous transport network," he said.

The Bill is also designed to support upgrades in UK infrastructure to support anticipated growth in the use of electric vehicles. The UK government has previously said that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2040.

Under the proposals, the government would be given the power to impose a duty on large fuel retailers and "service area operators", such as motorway service stations, to install charging points for electric vehicles on their premises.

The regulations, under which those requirements could be imposed, could also require the charge points to be fitted with 'smart' technology that enables it to receive, process, react and transmit information, as well as monitor and record energy consumption.

The technical specifications for the smart charging points could also be geared towards achieving security compliance, energy efficiency and enabling remote access, according to the Bill.

The government said the 'smart' provisions would allow the charging points to "interact with the grid in order to manage demand for electricity across the country".

Becca Aspinwall, expert in smart energy at Pinsent Masons, said it remains to be seen how much value there will be in the 'smart' charging requirement proposed by the Bill. 

"The purpose of a smart charger is to assist with balancing demand on the grid, allowing the charger, within reason, to draw electricity from the grid as and when there is less demand and feedback electricity as demand ramps up," Aspinwall said. "However, smart chargers may in time be more beneficial at homes and businesses where cars are often parked for a longer duration, allowing them to integrate more fully with the grid, rather than at a motorway or petrol services station where drivers want to be able to charge quickly and be on their way." 

"Smart chargers are currently more expensive than non-smart chargers due to the bi-directional grid technology. Whether funding will be made available by the government for this uplift in cost, given the legislative requirement and potential market place, remains to be seen," she said.