Driverless cars promise motorists hands-off journeys, which many have hoped might allow for a couple more pints at the pub before travelling home.
But those planning to use their autonomous vehicle as a personal taxi service should beware, with the government announcing legislation to make sure it is treated like drink driving.
Being over the limit, going on your phone or having a nap behind the wheel of the futuristic cars will be illegal, according to documents published alongside the Automated Vehicles Bill which was announced in this week’s King’s Speech.
Being over the limit, going on your phone or having a nap behind the wheel of self-driving cars will be illegal under new legislation (stock image)
The Law Commission has already drawn up a draft proposal for legislation around the legal use of driverless cars and vehicles on Britain’s roads.
Motorists must ‘remain in a fit state to drive’ while their car is on the road, and there must be a ‘user in charge’ who is able to take control if the self-driving system requests for them to do so.
Drivers will still need to be sat in the front seat and have a driving licence to operate their vehicles, and failing to do so could open them up to prosecution.
Who will legally be held responsible if a self-driving car crashes?
The Law Commission’s proposal published in 2022 outlined plans for the legal framework to consider motorists differently when automated driving features are in operation.
When a self-driving system is active, it recommends that a human in the driver’s seat should legally become a ‘user-in-charge’ – and would avoid prosecution if the vehicle drives itself dangerously or causes a crash.
This would mean immunity from a wide range of offences, such as exceeding speed limits and running red lights when the self-driving feature is in operation.
Instead, the company or body that obtained the authorisation for the technology’s use would become an ‘Authorised Self-Driving Entity’ (ADSE) and be held responsible for the car’s actions in the eyes of the law.
Following a collision, the ASDE would be required to work with a regulatory body, in order to avoid repeat occurrences by providing data to understand who was at fault and where liability lies.
The ADSE could also face sanctions if regulators deem necessary.
A user-in-charge would still be required to retain some duties, such as holding a driving licence, having insurance and ensuring occupants are wearing seatbelts. And they will have to remain within the drink-drive limit.
They will not be able to use their phones and ‘should remain able to retake dynamic driving control, for example they must be awake and in the driving seat’.
The legislation will include specific legal protection for passengers, making the company that built the vehicle responsible for the way it drives.
This includes any fatal crashes the vehicle might be involved in, with the manufacturers who have developed the technology liable rather than the drivers.
However, users will need to ensure the vehicles’ occupants are wearing safety belts and that the car is roadworthy.
In cases where the car is being operated remotely, such as driverless taxi services or buses, the requirements will not apply.
A spokesman for the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for self-driving cars told The Telegraph the legislation ‘could mean AV (automated vehicle) companies operating commercial services to the public by the end of the decade, as regulations go through consultations and testing processes.’
Meanwhile, AA president Edmund King said: ‘The plans to introduce self-driving vehicles provide the opportunity for more efficient travel, but safety must be paramount when rolled out onto UK roads.’
Last month, the Local Government Association’s Future Crime Horizon Scan said there was ‘particular concern’ about driverless vehicles.
It warned in a report that terrorists could hack into them to use them as weapons in horrific attacks.
AV companies have insisted that their systems will ultimately be safer than human-operated vehicles, taking out the risk of human error.
It is also hoped they will cut down the number of accidents involving drunk drivers, which account for one in five of deaths on UK roads.
Cruise, a driverless robotaxi, drives on a street in San Francisco, California, in August
The UK became the first European country to allow drivers on public roads to let go of steering wheels in April, after the Government gave manufacturer Ford permission to activate its BlueCruise system.
Although users can take their hands off the wheel, an infrared camera checks they are keeping their eyes on the road in case human intervention is required.
The government plans to have self-driving vehicles on UK roads within the next decade, however they are still in the testing phase.
The new legislation is expected to allow delivery services to use them as soon as 2026.