Business Technology

How will businesses adapt to driverless cars?

6 min read

12 November 2015

Driverless, or autonomous, vehicles are set to alter the face of motoring across the UK.

This new technology aims to improve the driving experience, making it safer, more productive, more cost-effective and easier on the environment. But who will be legally responsible when something goes wrong?

Will the employer or manufacturer be expected to pay a parking fine? Will they be accountable for a glitch in the software that sends people the wrong way down a street? And more seriously, what happens if a driverless car severely injures or kills someone?

Yes, automated vehicles should reduce the number of accidents caused by human error (being distracted, misinterpreting other roads users’ movements, carelessness, etc) but incidents are still likely to happen.

So, how could the law overcome problems presented by driverless cars on UK roads

Road accidents

In the event that a driverless car causes a crash or knocks someone over, there are many parties likely to be held accountable. However, accountability will depend on the extent to which the cars can drive themselves and whether or not there is an option for self drive.

A good example of this is the autopilot function on a plane, because while the plane can fly itself, ultimately, control remains with the pilot. With regard to driverless cars, current laws will need to remain in place as responsibility will be on the driver and, therefore, the business owner.

The real question is whether laws will need to be adapted to cater for this new technology. For example, should the software on the car malfunction, resulting in a collision, is the company using the care responsible or the software manufacturer?

In this case, the software manufacturer is most likely to face legal action as product liability legislation states that the manufacturer is responsible for products once they have been sold. However, employers will be expected to keep software up to date, so an insurance policy will have to be taken out that reflects this. If the vehicle allows for some manual control, then an insurance policy will need to be taken out that covers both the driver and the vehicle.

Distractions

In businesses that involve the unloading and loading of a vehicle, somebody will have to be present to do this and ensure that goods are not stolen during a journey. 

Whether or not those riding in a driverless car need to pay attention or not – i.e. can use a mobile phone, laptop or other mobile device – depends on whether they have to take control of the vehicle. 

If at any point the employee needs to take over driving, then they should remain capable of this task, which means conforming to the same laws. If, however, the vehicle has no ability to be driven manually, then it is effectively an electronic chauffeur and, arguably, the employee is just a passenger and could be drunk or distracted.

Driving licences

As the name suggests, driverless cars are without a designated driver. So, does this mean that people can be employed in a role that involves a vehicle without having a licence?

Again, this depends on the level of manual control in the vehicle. If there is a self-drive mode, then a licenced driver should be present. But if the car is completely automatic, then a driver would not need to be present in the car all of the time. 

For example, picking up a fare in a driverless taxi can be done without someone present. However, companies would need to recruit workers who have experience with the technology and software, as well as train existing employees. 

Paying fines

If an automated car parks in a no-parking zone, responsibility for the fine or ticket will most likely fall on the owner of the vehicle – the employer. However, speeding fines may become redundant as driverless cars will have technology preventing them from speeding, which can save money for a business.

Maintenance

Regulations and tests, such as the MOT, that need to be carried out to check for the roadworthiness of a vehicle, will have to change to ensure that the technology and software used is working and installed sufficiently. 

Stricter laws will have to be brought in to prevent businesses from tinkering with vehicles, so that cars continue to operate safely.

It’s clear to see that some amendments will have to be made to the law, particularly when it comes to vicarious liability – the extent that one person is responsible for the acts and omissions of another. 

Questions will no doubt arise regarding the reliance an employer can place on the reliability of a machine, and whether or not there will be an overriding duty for employees to ensure the safe driving of the car.

Nick Terry is a solicitor at criminal defence law firm DrivingOffence.com.