Electric charging points at all major motorway services and petrol stations, and the occupants of a self-driving car aren’t liable in the case of an accident—those are two of the measures proposed by a new law that the UK government hopes will let us reap the rewards of improved transport technology over the next few years.
These changes are part of the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill (VTAB), a draft law that is basically a shopping list of governmental desires. The details of the bill will change as it goes through parliament, though hopefully most of it will survive scrutiny—there’s some good stuff in there.
The first item on the bill involves automated vehicles, and how to ensure that the vehicle’s owner (which may or may not be a driver) and potential accident victims are protected. The bill says that insurance companies must offer two types of protection: for when a vehicle is acting autonomously, but also if the human driver decides to takes control. Essentially, the government wants to make sure that an accident victim can always claim compensation from the insurance company, even if the car was acting autonomously.
It would then be up for the insurance company to try and reclaim that money from the car maker through existing common law and product liability arrangements. An impact assessment from last year details how the government thinks this process might occur in practice:
Where the manufacturer is found to be liable, the insurer will be able to pursue a subrogated claim against the manufacturer under existing common law and product liability arrangements and recover their costs from the manufacturer. It is possible that the first few cases will go to court though over time we expect insurers and manufacturers will develop processes to handle subrogated claims quickly and easily. And, in any case, we do not consider it to be in a manufacturer’s commercial interest to be unhelpful to insurers in determining liability or paying subrogated claims; ultimately insurers could potentially cease offering insurance products for their vehicles if their route to recovery was consistently blocked.
In a somewhat rare display of tech savviness, there are two exemptions listed in the bill. If the vehicle owner makes unauthorised changes to the car’s software, or fails to install a software update as mandated by their insurance policy, then the insurer doesn’t have to pay.
It isn’t clear at this point which capabilities will be enough to classify a vehicle as “self-driving.” The draft law asks the department for transport (DfT) to work it out, post haste, and then to determine which vehicles qualify for the new type of insurance. Presumably the DfT will pick one of the SAE “levels” as the threshold. Advanced road cars like the Tesla Model S or a new Mercedes are somewhere between Level 2 and Level 3 on the autonomy scale, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the DfT requires Level 4 or perhaps even Level 5 before the vehicle can be held liable.
Chris Grayling, transport secretary, had these fluffy morsels to share regarding the new bill:
Automated vehicles have the potential to transform our roads in the future and make them even safer and easier to use, as well as promising new mobility for those who cannot drive. But we must ensure the public is protected in the event of an incident and today we are introducing the framework to allow insurance for these new technologies.
AXA’s chief underwriter, David Williams, was a little more hard-hitting:
This is a positive step forward that provides clarity to insurers to ensure we design our products appropriately. It keeps protection of the general public at its heart which we hope will encourage early adoption of some really impressive technology.
The vast majority of accidents are caused by human error and we see automated vehicles having a massive impact, reducing the number and severity of accidents. As well as making our roads safer, insurance premiums are based on the cost of claims and therefore we expect substantially reduced premiums to follow.
Invasion of the charging points
The planned law also outlines new governmental powers to improve the UK’s electric charging infrastructure. The government wants to mandate that motorway service stations and large fuel retailers (Shell, BP, Esso, etc.) provide both electric and hydrogen charging points. Furthermore, the government wants to standardise charge point connectors, make sure charge point operators play nicely with each other, and create an open data API with all of the country’s charge point locations and their real-time availability.
Elsewhere in the bill there are some proposed changes to the voluntary educational courses that you can take instead of receiving a fixed penalty fine, some tweaks to the MOT road-worthiness system, and more rigorous guidance on how to deal with laser misuse.
What there’s no sign of, however, is the Modern Transport Bill, which was first announced in May last year but never actually appeared. It’s possible that the MTB has instead been replaced by the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, plus a separate bill that deals with the regulation of spaceflight from UK spaceports.
Listing image by Sebastian Anthony