Laws for remote control driving under scrutiny

UK Law Commission consults on legal options as public trials of remote control driving tech loom

Remote controlled car

With tech firms already exploring ways to drive vehicles by remote control on UK roads, the Law Commission of England and Wales has launched a new consultation to grapple with the potential legal minefield.

There’s already a live remote control trial taking place on private routes in Milton Keynes, and it has been suggested that members of the public accessing the trial could be able to hail a car and have it delivered by remote control before the year is out.

The Commission has published a paper asking for views on the need for regulating remote control driving on public roads, and the potential options. As well as the on-road trial in Milton Keynes, similar technology is already used in controlled environments such as warehouses, farms and mines. The Commission wants to find out how existing laws might apply to remote control driving technology being deployed on the road, and what new legislation would be required to back it up.

The consultation focuses on situations where someone is operating a vehicle remotely without a line of sight, and may be “many miles” away. It even mentions the possibility of vehicles on UK roads being driven remotely from foreign countries, something the Commission says “has the potential to create serious practical and legal difficulties in enforcement”, and questions whether it would need to be prohibited.

Other key questions include how a strong, reliable connection between the remote driver and the vehicle could be maintained, how remote drivers could remain aware of the surroundings of the vehicle without feeling sensations such as acceleration, how could fatigue, motion sickness and distraction be avoided, and what cybersecurity measures would be needed to prevent an unauthorised user taking control of a vehicle.

Nicholas Paines QC, public law commissioner, said: “We hope our issues paper can contribute to a healthy debate about the appropriate regulation of this technology and what can be done to maximise protection of road users while encouraging innovation.”

Jack Cousens, head of roads policy at the AA, said: “While trials of remote driving are currently underway in Milton Keynes, extending the capability to potentially allow all drivers to sit miles away and ‘drive’ a car will need extensive testing, tough regulation and a conversation that brings the public along for the journey.

“While not wishing to stand in the way of progress, most drivers just want the basics solved, such as keeping roads pothole free.”

Rod McKenzie, executive director of policy and public affairs at the Road Haulage Association, said a “massive dose of caution” was required. He told Auto Express: “There are so many factors when you’re a lorry driver that you couldn’t really see on a computer video.

“There are blind spots on trucks that need monitoring and a range of other factors, and just sitting behind a computer screen with a steering wheel isn’t going to mimic all those things. I’d be very cautious. We’d need to know more, and we’d need to see it trialled for a long time before getting any seal of approval.”

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