By Tom Dias, a serious injury legal expert at Irwin Mitchell

The Government has announced its proposed changes to the Highway Code in relation to driverless vehicles. 

In the introduction to the proposals made by Rachel Maclean MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, it was declared that: “Automated vehicle technology is set to play a major role in the transport revolution happening today across the UK, helping to improve transport across the nations by making everyday journeys safer, more flexible and more reliable.” 

This of course remains to be seen and in the interim one can be highly sceptical of at least the first claim, however it is worth examining the proposals in full.

Levels of automation 

Firstly, some background. According to the Society of Automotive Engineers (‘SAE’) there are six levels of automation for cars, level 0 – 5, with level 0 being fully manual and level 5 being fully autonomous with no ‘driver’ input needed whatsoever. 

As an example, many of your cars will have adaptive cruise control, where the vehicle is kept at a safe distance behind the car in front up to a set speed. This is level 1, a single system for driver assistance. Level 2 is ‘partial driving automation’, that is to say a car can control both steering and accelerating / decelerating. According to the SAE, Tesla’s ‘Autopilot’ system qualifies as level 2.

The proposed changes

The changes that the Government is proposing only amount to a watered-down version of level 2 as they will only apply to speeds of 37 mph or less on motorways or dual carriage ways. Those vehicles listed by the Secretary of State will be considered automated vehicles and, “[W]hile an automated vehicle is driving itself, you are not responsible for how it drives, and you do not need to pay attention to the road. But you must follow the manufacturer’s instructions about when it is appropriate to engage the self-driving function.” 

Put simply, you do not have to pay attention until the vehicle tells you to take over.

Streaming

So, this will include being able to watch your latest streaming service binge on the car’s inbuilt entertainment system. Crucially this does not include use of your mobile phone or your own tablet to watch the same show. The rationale for this is that the car cannot warn you through those systems to take control of the car.

The risks involved

This is a worrying development for at least two reasons. Many doubt whether the effectiveness of the systems is at the level it needs to be (or will need to be over the next few years). 

Further there is a concern around ‘cognitive offload’. We will all be familiar with this, when we pass functions we used to do ourselves to a computer. 

We cannot remember as many phone numbers as we used to be able to. Many will now not be able to use an A – Z to navigate as opposed to using the satnav. The problem with this is when the system stops working. We will have lost our learnt skills we used to rely upon – we have all gone down the wrong street because the satnav told us to.

What happens when the vehicle suddenly tells you to take over? Do drivers have the skills to do that, process the issue and react accordingly? The airline industry has become aware of this problem over the past decade; one can only hope that the motor vehicle industry and those regulating it take on the lessons being learnt in aviation.

Legal claims

Insurance companies, not individuals, will be directly responsible for legal claims in many circumstances. As so often the devil will be in the detail. However, for those working in the personal injury sector it is easy to see the arguments that will arise as to whether the systems were being used appropriately by the ‘driver’. 

There is likely to be an increase in test litigation on whether the driver and / or the automated vehicle was responsible.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and families affected by road collisions at our dedicated serious injury section.