Remote driving technology – which enables a person to drive a vehicle from a remote location – has seen rapid advancements in recent years, and is already used in controlled environments, such as warehouses and farms.
The Law Commission’s published advice to Government – the culmination of a review commissioned by the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) – calls for both short-term changes to the law to respond to emerging safety concerns, as well as a new regulatory regime to govern remote driving on roads in the longer term.
The new paper considers remote driving where the driver does not have direct line of sight of the vehicle and may be in an operations centre many miles away. This could involve the driver using several screens and a control system to direct a vehicle on the road.
Remote driving technology has several potential applications, including delivering rental cars to customers’ doors. The technology may also be used in trials of self-driving vehicles. Whereas most UK trials of self-driving vehicles have an in-vehicle “safety driver”, there is increasing interest in using remote driving technology to enable the safety driver to be located outside the vehicle.
Safety challenges considered in the review include establishing reliable connectivity, driver situational awareness, a possible sense of “detachment” from the physical world, and cybersecurity – such as the threat of a terrorist seizing control of a vehicle.
The Commission concludes in its advice that remote driving on roads and public places should only be allowed if companies obtain special permissions.
The Commission’s advice to Government also considers who may be liable in the event of an accident with remotely driven vehicles – concluding that all victims should be protected by automatic compensation from insurers.While individual remote drivers would be responsible for their driving in the same way as in-vehicle drivers, they would not be liable for any faults beyond their control, such as those due to connectivity problems.
The advice set out in the paper is largely modelled on the Commission’s 2022 recommendations on autonomous vehicles, which the Government has used as part of its plans to roll out self-driving cars by 2025.
Commenting on the advice paper, Nicholas Paines KC, Public Law Commissioner, said:
“Remote driving is an exciting technology, but before we see remotely operated cars on UK roads, we must address safety concerns through strong regulation.
“Our advice concludes that in the immediate term, the Government would be able to address some gaps in the law around remote driving using existing powers, while also providing a path for companies to use the technology lawfully provided that their systems are safe. In the longer term, it could set up a full system of remote driving regulation.
“Regulations must respond to other fundamental concerns around security threats and liability in the event of an accident. Our advice paper sets out a roadmap for how the Government can address these problems, whilst also encouraging companies to innovate.”
Transport Minister Jesse Norman said:
“Remote driving is already being successfully used off-road in several industries and has huge potential to provide new services and safety features for road vehicles.
“The Government needs to ensure that safety is at the forefront of the use of any new technology, and the Department will carefully consider the Law Commission’s recommendations.”
In its published paper for Government, the Law Commission remote driving advice includes:
- Short term measures to address gaps in the law: current laws do not expressly prohibit the use of remote driving technology where the driver is beyond line of sight – clarity in the law is urgently required. A new prohibition measure could be brought in immediately.
- Safety requirements for remote driving: under these short-term measures, companies wanting to use remote driving beyond line-of-sight on roads without an in-vehicle safety driver could submit a safety case to the Vehicle Certification Agency and apply for a vehicle special order.
- A new regulatory system to govern remote driving over the long term: these short-term measures would provide some clarity, but penalties and enforcement powers are limited. A new comprehensive regulatory regime for remote driving would require an Act of Parliament.
- Licences for remote driving operations: subject to satisfying a safety standard, organisations intending to use remote driving would be able to obtain a licence.
- Safety concerns justify a ban on remote driving from overseas: given the lack of enforcement powers, remotely driving a vehicle from overseas should be prohibited.
- Criminal and civil liability: while remote drivers should be prosecuted for the same crimes as in-vehicle drivers, they should not be liable for any problems beyond their control, such as those due to connectivity issues or faulty remote driving equipment. Remote driving companies should instead be subject to regulatory sanctions and in serious cases, prosecution. Victims of road incidents caused by remote driving should receive no-fault compensation.
It is now for the Government to decide whether it intends to take our advice on remote driving forward.