Everybody seems to be at it these days. Google, Apple, Tesla – and now add to that Uber – everyone’s into driverless cars. It seems that if you’re a tech company without an autonomous vehicle strategy then you’ll have one soon.

But what’s really happening in the UK? Well, the government wants us to be at the forefront of connected and autonomous vehicles and we’re well positioned to do so. We currently have a legal and regulatory framework which is better disposed to allow testing of autonomous vehicles on our roads than many other countries; we’ve got an automotive heritage which is the envy of others; and our tech pedigree is second to none.

As you’ll no doubt have read, consortia are currently testing driverless cars in Bristol, Milton Keynes, Coventry and Greenwich. The focus of these investigations is slightly different, each designed to assess the varying challenges facing the driverless market.

So, assuming that these tests go well and the government continues to invest in autonomous vehicles as a strategic area of importance for UK plc then what are some of the legal obstacles which need to be addressed to allow full blown adoption?

  • Legal framework – the UK’s current light touch regulatory approach to testing may be an attraction but what more formal, legally binding regulations will need to be put in place to make autonomous vehicles a reality on our roads?
  • Privacy – if autonomous vehicles are to work at their most effective in a fully functioning IOT world then data will need to be shared more easily;
  • Security – whether it relates to connectivity generally or to the hardware and software itself, the threat of cyber security will need to be addressed to ensure mass adoption;
  • Liability – ethical dilemmas aside, who will be responsible for the vehicle’s actions? And how will the social contract between autonomous vehicles and, say, cyclists or pedestrians change in a smart city environment?
  • Connectivity – as autonomous vehicles interact with infrastructure, other vehicles and associated devices, appropriate telecommunications standards and regulations will need to be devised;
  • Planning – if, as many suggest, truly autonomous vehicles are likely to be used principally in urban environments as a new mobility model then how will cities and their designs need to be adapted to take account of, for instance, the need for less parking?

We’re only at the very beginning of investigating how best these new driverless vehicles might be used. Working together with the newly formed joint policy unit, the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (C-CAV), which will co-ordinate government policy on driverless cars and connected technology, many of the legal questions may well be resolved quite simply. No doubt new ones will arise as the research develops. For anyone interested in cars, technology and the law it’s going to be an interesting time.

This article was first published by Lawyer2B on 24 November 2016.