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The Autumn 2017 Budget-driverless cars

TMT analysis: Andrew Joint, commercial technology partner at Kemp Little, explains the key announcements of the Autumn Budget relating to driverless cars.

Original news

Autumn Budget 2017: Tech and Innovation, LNB News 22/11/2017 72

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, has announced plans at Autumn Budget 2017 for a new advisory body—the Centre for Data Ethics—to enable and ensure safe and ethical innovation in artificial intelligence (AI) and data-driven technologies. The government also outlined its ambition to see fully self-driving cars, without a human operator, on UK roads by 2021.

What has been announced?

In his Autumn Budget the Chancellor stated that ‘the government wants to see fully self-driving cars, without a human operator, on UK roads by 2021’ and that he wanted to create ‘the most advanced regulatory framework for driverless cars in the world’.

Where specifically will the funds be invested?

Noting the stated figures that the driverless car industry has the potential to be worth £28bn to the UK and employ nearly 30,000 people, the investment in an ethical centre to deal with some of the wider issues raised by technologies such as driverless vehicles is a sensible but vital move by the government. However, considering the value/impact of driverless vehicles (according to the government’s own figures) this ‘R&D’ investment still seems low.

We can expect to see more charging points by our roads and electric car use following the announcement of a new £400m charging infrastructure fund, the investment of an extra £100m in Plug-In-Car Grant, and £40m in charging R&D.

What developments have happened so far?

In February 2015 the Department for Transport (DfT) published ‘A detailed review of regulations for automated vehicle technologies’, together with a ‘Summary report and action plan’, under the heading ‘The Pathway to Driverless Cars’.

These documents set out the UK government’s plan to update laws and regulations to permit the sale of automated vehicles to the public, and include plans to develop a code of practice for testing automated vehicles, while reviewing legislation to clarify liabilities in the event of a collision, and consider whether higher standards of safety are required (including dealing with cyber threats).

Additionally, a draft ‘Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill’ was announced during the Queen’s Speech in February 2017, which included proposed automated vehicle specific legislation, relating to record-keeping, insurance and accidents relating to uninstalled software updates. The Bill passed a second reading in October 2017.

Is it realistic to expect driverless cars to be on the roads in Britain by 2021?

We can certainly expect driverless cars on public roads within the next decade. Whether we can realistically expect to see them by 2021 will depend on the passage of the legislation mentioned earlier.

The government certainly has the desire for this to be the case, but perhaps some of the broader ethical questions regarding the ‘personhood’ status of driving software will be thornier issues to resolve not only in the UK, but also elsewhere in the world.

The law places a strong emphasis on ‘the person’, which drives concepts such as ownership and both civil and criminal liability. That concept initially attached to the human—people owning things, people committing crimes or entering into agreements. But we have seen our laws adapt and, in our modern world, we have stretched the concept of legal personality. We have created intangible entities, for example limited companies, PLCs, LLPs etc, which are all capable of ownership and liability in their own right. This means they can enter into contracts, incur debt and be held accountable for their actions, and they are distinct from the identities of their shareholders, directors, parent or subsidiary companies.

In 2017, for environmental protection reasons, we have seen the Whanganui River in New Zealand granted legal status and an attempt to do the same for the Ganges in India.

In October 2017 a robot called ‘Sophia’ was granted citizenship status by Saudi Arabia—triggering a wave of interesting discussions and repercussions, such as whether Saudi robots have more rights than women.

The law could be amended to give some form of legal status (and so responsibility/accountability) to driving technologies—as we already have a precedent for amending this legal concept.

Interviewed by Alex Heshmaty.

The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

This article was first published on Lexis®PSL TMT on 30 November 2017. Click for a free trial of Lexis®PSL

Contact our experts for further advice

James Bellamy, Andrew Joint