A gallery assistant sits inside the "Sedric" Volkswagen driverless concept car during the press launch of the exhibition; "The Future Starts Here" at Victoria and Albert Museum on May 9, 2018 in London, England.

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through before becoming enshrined in law.

The government says that fully self-driving vehicles could be on U.K. roads within two years.

“While this doesn’t take away people’s ability to choose to drive themselves, our landmark legislation means self-driving vehicles can be rolled out on British roads as soon as 2026, in a real boost to both safety and our economy,” Transport Secretary Mark Harper said in a statement.

Today’s news comes just a few weeks after U.K.-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.

As with other countries, the U.K. has permitted driverless cars on public roads for many years already, but with strict rules in place for companies seeking permission to try out new technologies. But as the autonomous vehicle industry has evolved and geared up for primetime, the need for a new legal framework became evident.

While the initial ground work preceded it by several years, the U.K. 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 a need for a whole “new vocabulary, new legal actors, and new regulatory schemes.” It said:

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

Automated Vehicles: joint report of the The Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission

Liability in case of a self-driving car accident

The U.K. has been eager to position itself at the forefont of the autonomous vehicle revolution, funding various AV projects and research programs around safety. The government has touted the potential safety benefits of self-driving cars in that they remove human error from roads, though it acknowledges that crashes will still happen, as evidenced by reports from the U.S. where self-driving cars have a firmer foothold. In fact, California has emerged as a hotbed for proposed AV regulation, too.

This is why liability is one of the core facets of the U.K.’s new regulation — who will bear responsibility in the event of a crash? The U.K. clarified this point in 2022 when it published a roadmap which stated that its new legislation will make corporations responsible for any mishaps, “meaning a human driver would not be liable for incidents related to driving while the vehicle is in control of driving.”

Each approved self-driving vehicle will have a corresponding “Authorised Self-Driving Entity,” which will more often than not be the manufacturer but in actuality could be the software developer or insurance company. And this entity is what will responsible for the vehicle wen self-driving mode is activated.

The Government will set up a vehicle approval system backed by a “completely independent incident investigation function,” with companies approved to operate under the new regulations expected to meet “ongoing obligations” to ensure their vehicles are safe.

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