UK autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars in 2026

The UK’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for autonomous vehicles are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent – ​​the final seal any legislation must pass through before becoming law.

The government says fully autonomous vehicles could be on UK roads within two years.

“While this does not remove the ability of people to choose to drive for themselves, our landmark legislation means that autonomous vehicles will be able to hit Britain’s roads from 2026, which will be a real boost for both safety and our economy,” said the Secretary of Transportation. Mark Harper said in a statement.

Today’s news comes just weeks after UK-based Wayve raised more than $1 billion from high-profile companies including SoftBank, Nvidia and Microsoft to continue developing a self-learning software system for autonomous vehicles.

Like other countries, the UK has already allowed driverless vehicles on public roads for many years, but with strict rules for companies seeking permission to test new technologies. But as the autonomous vehicle industry evolved and prepared for prime time, the need for a new legal framework became clear.

While initial groundwork preceded it by several years, the United Kingdom formally proposed the AV Act in a 2022 joint report published by the Law Commissions of England, Wales and Scotland, which noted that the arrival of autonomous vehicles creates the need for everything a “New vocabulary, new legal actors and new regulatory schemes.” He said:

“The introduction of automated vehicles will have profound legal consequences… it requires new regulatory schemes and new actors (with new responsibilities and obligations). “We therefore recommend primary legislation (a new Automated Vehicles Act) to regulate automated vehicles on roads or other public places in Britain.”

Automated vehicles: joint report from the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Law Commission of Scotland

Liability in the event of a driverless car accident

The UK has been eager to position itself at the forefront of the autonomous vehicle revolution, funding several AV projects and research programs around safety. The government has touted the potential safety benefits of autonomous vehicles as they remove human error from the roads, although it acknowledges that accidents will continue to occur, as evidenced by reports from the United States, where autonomous vehicles have a stronger foothold. In fact, California has also become a hotbed for proposed AV regulation.

This is why liability is one of the central facets of the new UK regulation: who will take responsibility in the event of an accident? The United Kingdom clarified this point in 2022 when it published a roadmap stating that its new legislation would hold companies responsible for any mishaps, “meaning that a human driver would not be responsible for incidents related to driving while the vehicle has driving control.”

Each approved autonomous vehicle will have a corresponding “Authorized Autonomous Driving Entity,” which in most cases will be the manufacturer, but could actually be the software developer or insurance company. And this entity is the one that will be responsible for the vehicle when the autonomous driving mode is activated.

The Government will establish a vehicle approval system supported by a “fully independent incident investigation function”, and companies approved to operate under the new regulations will be expected to meet “ongoing obligations” to ensure their vehicles are safe.

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