Automated Vehicles Act: spotlight on safety 

June, 2024 - Shoosmiths LLP

The Automated Vehicles Act (the Act) outlines the safety requirements that manufacturers and operators of automated vehicles will need to meet in order to deploy their goods and services on UK roads. In this article Ben Gardner outlines the key safety areas that will need to be considered.

The Act has now received Royal Assent and, at this stage, creates a framework under which further regulations will need to be developed by the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) to provide the detailed rules and requirements that are needed to enable widespread deployment. It is based on recommendations following the Law Commission’s extensive three-year review into UK driving laws, responses to multiple industry consultations, and guidance from the CCAV and other stakeholders.

Safety in the era of automated vehicles

The vast majority of road traffic accidents are currently caused by human error but it is estimated that automated vehicles could reduce traffic fatalities by up to 90%. With that in mind, the Act is a positive first step to the future of the UK’s roads and, as a result, comes a need for a robust regulatory framework to ensure safety, reliability, and public trust.

For organisations wishing to offer products and services involving automated vehicles it is crucial to understand the safety requirements and legal responsibilities that will shape their operations.

When a car is driving itself, it can be unclear who is responsible for an accident. The Act has shifted liability for accidents to the authorised self-driving entity (ASDE) or the no-user-in-charge (NUiC) operator (read more on liability in our article here). The safety standards of a human driver are well established, but clarity was needed as to what standard and definition of safety is needed when there is no human in charge of a vehicle. The government is seeking to define the safety standards of an autonomous vehicle to facilitate approval, in-use monitoring and assessing the liability position in the event of an accident.

What you need to know

  • National safety principles: A set of national safety principles will detail the safety expectations for self-driving vehicles, guiding the Secretary of State in assessing a vehicle’s ability to drive safely and legally.
  • Safety equivalent to human drivers: The Act mandates that self-driving vehicles should achieve a safety level equivalent to or higher than that of a careful and competent human driver.
  • Data disclosure and in-use regulation: There is a strict obligation for entities to disclose safety data, with criminal penalties for non-compliance, ensuring transparency and adherence to safety regulations.

Understanding the safety requirements

The Act introduces a comprehensive safety framework which will be applicable throughout the life cycle of an automated vehicle, including for the purposes of authorisation, in-use monitoring, and accident investigation. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Statement of safety principles: The Act requires a set of statement of safety principles to be developed which provide further detail on the safety expectations for self-driving vehicles (the principles). The scope and content of the principles is yet to be confirmed but they are likely to be aligned with the objectives set out in the “safety ambition” discussed below.

Organisations will need to align their vehicle design, testing, and operations with the principles to ensure that they necessary approvals and authorisations are granted and retained. It is understood that the government will soon consult on their proposals for what the principles should be and this will provide organisations with the ability to input into and influence the safety requirements for their automated vehicles.

2. Safety ambition: The Act establishes a safety ambition that self-driving vehicles should achieve a level of safety which:

  • is equivalent to, or higher than, a careful and competent human driver, and
  • improves road safety to a better standard than if automated vehicles had not been permitted on public roads.

Extensive secondary legislation will need to follow the Act in order to provide the level of detail which is necessary to give manufacturers, operators, members of the public, and other stakeholders clarity on the safety thresholds which must be met. For example, the term “careful and competent” needs to be suitably defined and the impact of a wide range of variables (such as weather) on this standard needs to be clarified.

3. Data disclosure and in-use regulation: The Act requires the Secretary of State to monitor and assess the general performance of automated vehicles on roads and in other public places to ensure that, amongst other things, performance is consistent with the Principles. They must then issue an annual report of its findings and conclusions on how automated vehicles are impacting on road safety.

To support the monitoring and assessment process, it is likely that organisations will be required to disclose certain safety data to the Secretary of State, possibly as part of their wider in-use monitoring regulations. Organisations that fail to comply with this requirement may face revocation of licences and authorisations, fines, or other sanctions (read more on the operator licensing scheme in our article here).

It will be crucial for organisations to consult with government on the data sets they are willing and able to share. Once agreed, organisations should ensure they have suitable means of capturing, storing, backing up, and sharing the required data sets at the required times.

Key takeaways

  • The safety of automated vehicles is at the heart of the Act. Robust and detailed safety ambitions and principles are expected which will shape the processes that will apply to approval, in-use monitoring, and accident investigation.
  • Organisations will be required to share data with a range of regulatory bodies on an on-going basis in order to demonstrate their automated vehicles are safe. Those wishing to obtain and retain the required approvals and authorisations should ensure that their systems and processes are set up to meet the prescribed requirements.
  • A range of consultations are likely to follow which will provide organisations with the ability to input into and influence safety and data sharing standards. Those wishing to offer goods and services in this space should be alert to these consultations and calls for evidence being issued over the coming months.

More information

Our experts have been engaged throughout the inception, development and introduction of the Act and we have prepared a series of articles to explore how the Act will impact on organisations offering goods and services in this space.

We produce a bi-annual legislation tracker, Accelerate, that helps our clients stay ahead of the legal changes affecting the automotive sector. You can subscribe here.


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