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'Over-the-air' software updates for driverless cars envisaged by UK minister

The "overwhelming majority" of software updates for driverless cars will be implemented remotely, a UK government minister has said.11 May 2018

Baroness Sugg, transport minister in England, addressed the topic in a recent letter (11-page / 3.44MB PDF) to peers in the House of Lords who are scrutinising the proposed new Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill.

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill was proposed by the government last year and is making its way through parliament. It 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 Bill is also designed to support upgrades in UK infrastructure to support anticipated growth in the use of electric vehicles.

Under clause 4 of the Bill, if an accident occurs as a direct result of an insured person failing to install safety-critical software updates that they knew, or ought reasonably to have known, were safety-critical, an insurer can recover the amount of money paid out following that accident from that individual.

However, in her letter, Baroness Sugg said that the provisions contained within clause 4 of the Bill are designed to "deal with the small number of potential situations where an insured person does need to act to install a safety critical update".

She said: "In practice, we are expecting that the overwhelming majority of software updates will be automatically installed over-the-air without the owner needing to do anything."

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill is currently before a House of Lords committee where its contents will be debated. A first committee debate took place on Wednesday, with the next debate scheduled for 17 May.

According to the 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 UK government has promised a rolling programme of legislative reforms to provide an up-to-date framework to support the introduction of driverless cars onto public roads.

Earlier this year, it commissioned a "detailed review" of driving laws. The Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission will together "examine any legal obstacles to the widespread introduction of self-driving vehicles and highlight the need for regulatory reforms" during their three year project, the government said at the time.

In addition, the 'sector deal' struck by the UK government and representatives of the automotive industry earlier this year is centred on supporting the development of low carbon, electric and connected and autonomous technologies of the future.

A code of practice for testing driverless cars has already been developed by the UK government.

Ben Gardner, specialist in connected and autonomous vehicles regulation at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "A central challenge for the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill is that it is trying to regulate a rapidly developing technology, so by the time the Bill comes into force it may not sufficiently cover the latest functionalities. It may therefore be necessary to build a mechanism into the Bill whereby ad hoc regulations can be introduced which more closely follow the latest technological advancements."

"This approach would help to ensure that any possible legal obstacles, grey areas or uncertainties could be promptly dealt with by the government in order to ensure that the UK remained an attractive place to develop, text and commercialise automated vehicles. Shooting a moving target is much easier when you are able to move the gun," he said.