16th Mar, 2021
Let’s be honest, most drivers view speed limits as a necessary evil. And there are those of us who aren’t always that great at sticking to them all the time, especially when out on motorways. It’s not just one of the most commonly broken driving laws, but in fact may well be one of the most common everyday crimes committed in the UK, period, and it’s a major factor in countless people deciding – I need to scrap my car. New technology and new laws are already evolving to try and curb the habit, such as with the introduction of in-built speed limiters.
Right now, the vast majority of speeding instances are the results of conscious decisions by human drivers, who remain legally culpable for the consequences. But what happens when the human occupant of the vehicle isn’t actually the one controlling it? In other words, if a self-driving car is setting its own speed – legal or not – does that mean the end for speeding tickets?
Now if you’ve got a self-driving car (sometimes known as an automatic vehicle, or AV) then the word ‘driver’ becomes a bit of a misnomer when applied to the human occupant. That’s part of why the Law Commission is proposing renaming ‘drivers’ of self-driving cars to users-in-charge within the next two years.
It might seem like a pretty small change on the surface, but it carries huge legal ramifications. The name change marks a shift in legal responsibilities, which means they could transform as many as 4.5 million motoring offences each year into pure regulatory matters.
To directly quote the Law Commission’s report, it suggests that as soon as a car is classified as an Automatic Vehicle, drivers “would not be liable for any criminal offence or civil penalty which arises out of dynamic driving.”
It goes on to say: “If there is a collision caused by a vehicle driving itself… the user-in-charge could not be prosecuted for offences such as careless or dangerous driving. The user-in-charge could not be prosecuted for a wide range of other offences, such as exceeding the speed limit.”
As you can see, that’s a pretty huge change, and it’s already ruffled plenty of feathers.
Now, even if your car happens to be self driving, that doesn’t mean you’re free from all responsibility. You’ve still got your fair share of obligations, so don’t start organising a party behind the wheel just yet.
Users-in-charge will still be responsible for other things, like carrying insurance and taking care to report accidents on the road. Most importantly though, you’d still need to be capable and aware enough to take over control of the vehicle should it prompt you to. If an AV detects a tricky situation it’s struggling to calculate its way out of, it will use a combination of dashboard warning lights and audible alarms. These are officially referred to as multi-sensory alerts, to make it really clear when human occupants need to take control.
However, if the user-in-charge doesn’t take action within 10 seconds of what the RAC calls ‘escalating transition demand’ – a polite technical way of referring to the car yelling at you to take control – then the AV will perform a minimum risk manoeuvre. Often, this will involve coming to a slow stop in a lane with its hazard warning lights on.
You’ll note that this is far from an ideal solution to most developing hazards, and in many cases may not even guarantee safety. That means in practice, while users-in-charge might be technically exempt from prosecution for things like dangerous driving, they’ll still be ultimately responsible for ensuring their own safety and that of everyone else in the car. So, maybe don’t tempt fate too much by taking the opportunity for forty winks at the wheel.
Well, that’s really the million dollar question, isn’t it. At the moment, the answer still seems to be a little fuzzy. There’s certainly a lot of thinking going into a closely-related conundrum – namely working out when and how autonomous cars might be able to technically break laws, if it ultimately means protecting human health and safety. (For example, by briefly accelerating beyond the speed limit in order to escape what might have otherwise been a dangerous collision.)
The Law Commission has already carried out several full consultations on this. Amongst its findings were that RAC members and other motorists generally supporting exceeding the speed limit but only within very small amounts, and in rare circumstances. Most safety organisations said no, it’s never acceptable for self-driving cars to break the speed limit.
It’s a shame then, that some real-world events are already contradicting this consensus. There was a bit of controversy a few years ago when Tesla initially limited the speed of its AVs to stay within speed limits at all times – before reversing that change again on the 17th of January, allowing Tesla owners to return to breaking speed limits at will. On non-divided roads like residential streets and A-roads, the car is capped to just five miles an hour faster than the limit. On highways however, that limit is set much higher, so that Tesla owners can freely set their cars to go as fast as 90mph if they so choose.
Now, you could make the argument that motorway speed limits have been set with human limitations in mind, and are designed to account for human reaction times. And since the sensors of a self-driving car are so much more sophisticated than human senses, with a more finely tuned awareness of its own weight and velocity, then why shouldn’t they be able to break established speed limits, as long as they’re still driving safely, and have sufficient room to do so?
But equally, if you’re going to set speed limits and then allow autonomous cars to break then with no legal consequences for the users-in-charge, then what is the point of having those speed limits in the first place? Don’t they then simply become a rule for only one segment of the driving population, one that certain drivers can buy their way out of – as long as they can afford the ‘right kind’ of car?
We don’t know the answers to any of these questions here at Scrap Car Network – we’ll leave it to people far more qualified than us to ultimately have the final say! We’ll tell you what we are great at though, and that’s getting you the very best price when you scrap your car with us. Here at Scrap Car Network, you can count on us to help you get the very best price for your scrap car. We make it fast and easy to scrap your car for cash – just enter your car reg and postcode into our website for an instant, no obligation valuation!