Kerry Underwood


with 12 comments

Driverless cars are receiving extensive coverage in the media generally but very little in the legal press, even though solicitors’ firms are likely to be among the most affected businesses.

How many personal injury cases have you dealt with, or heard of, arising from the use of driverless trains? The Victoria Line on the London Underground was the first – in 1967 – and has been joined by the Central, Jubilee and Northern Lines and the inter-terminal trains at Gatwick and Stansted Airports. There are hundreds of driverless railway systems worldwide.

True it is that there are generally no other drivers on the railways, but therein lies the rub.

Virtually all statistics show that over 90% of road traffic accidents are caused by driver error. Take driving out of the equation and that should mean 90% fewer accidents, 90% fewer road traffic accidents and 90% fewer road traffic accident fee earners.

There are likely to be some accidents even in a driverless world, but based on the tests to date they will be few and far between, and in any event are unlikely to end up in the hands of typical road traffic claimant lawyers.

Volvo has already announced that it will cover all loss involving any of its vehicles and that example is expected to be followed by most, if not all, motor manufacturers.

Any lawsuits are likely to be between car manufacturers and software suppliers or the Highway Agency or whichever body is responsible for road and system maintenance. These are likely to be heavyweight product liability cases, not the general territory of portal lawyers.

The gathering pace of technological and legal developments is astonishing. One fact says it all: the Department of Transport Consultation Paper – Pathway to Driverless Cars: Proposals to Support Advanced Driver Assistance Systems and Automated Vehicle Technologies – on potential changes to the Highway Code, the Road Traffic Acts and insurance law was issued before the Consultation Paper on increasing the personal injury small claims limit and scrapping or restricting general damages claims in minor soft tissue injury cases. The consultation closed on 9 September 2016

Privately some senior figures are wondering if there is any point in the small claims limit and soft tissue reforms as driverless cars will quickly make them redundant.

As the paper itself says “This consultation represents a major step on the pathway to driverless cars .It starts a rolling programme of reform that will keep our regulations up to date, ensuring we can safely take advantage of what automated vehicles can offer, tailored to near-to-market technologies.”

So what is the timescale?

Ford expect to be mass producing driverless cars for use by 2021 and Google by 2020. Ford has announced that it is proceeding straight to Level 4 and Level 5 driverless cars that is they will not bother with Levels 1, 2 and 3 transitional hybrid cars. Level 4 is for use in a city area and Level 5 is full autonomy in any driving conditions or location.  (Statement by Ford President Mark Fields– Palo Alto, California, 16 August 2016).

These are United States terms but have been adopted, with slight amendments, by the UK government. The UK Level 5 definition is “System can control lateral AND longitudinal movement in all use cases. Driver intervention is not needed”.

Ford has for some time described itself as a technology company, not simply a car manufacturer and now says it is an “auto and mobility company”.

The Google Self-Driving Car Testing Report on Disengagement of Autonomous Mode, December 2015, contains a wealth of statistics on the first year of testing in California, generally in a city environment, which involves far greater problems than freeways.

Where the software detects an issue with the autonomous vehicle that may affect its safe operation it immediately hands controls over to the driver. In the fourth quarter of 2014 that was occurring on average every 785 miles. A year later that was down to once every 5,318 miles.

Driver initiated disengagement occurs with a similar frequency, usually due to perceived problems with unpredictable behaviour by drivers of ordinary cars.

The report lists every instance of disengagement and the date and the reason.

Google has also announced that it is going straight to Level 4. Such cars are “designed for very specific urban environments. It’s a car that’s going to take people at 20-30 mph through city centres.” – Wayne Cunningham – Managing Editor of Motoring News.

In August 2016 in Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, Uber started using self-driving taxis, albeit with a driver available to take over, and also with an observer. The fleet is a mixture of Volvo XC 90 Sport utility vehicles and Ford Focus cars.

Initial changes in the law to allow remote parking and hands off driving on motorways, but with driver overrides still available, are expected in the United Kingdom in 2018, with fully driverless cars, that is with no steering wheel or pedals or any facility for anyone to take control, by the mid-2020s. Many think it will be earlier.

Almost everyone agrees that the major benefits in safety, increased speed and lack of congestion and improved fuel economy come when driving is banned and all cars must be driverless. That is likely to be a social and political hot potato.

The benefits to the state are significant – “big prizes” in the words of the Department of Transport. Time off work through injury and payment of benefits will slump. NHS expenditure on treatment of road traffic accident victims will slump. Fuel consumption will fall sharply as vehicles are “platooned”, that is effectively made into a type of train.

The benefits to society and its members are enormous. Those with limited mobility, including disabled people and elderly people will have a new lease of life. Families will not be devastated by the death or serious injury of a loved one in a car crash.

There will be losers, including professional drivers, but entertainment generally, including pubs, restaurants, sporting events, theatres etc. are likely to benefit.

Much of the personal injury claims sector will disappear.

Driverless cars will make the small claims limit/soft tissue injury debate look like the proverbial vicar’s tea party as far as road traffic firms are concerned.

Many lawyers struggle to have a five minute plan, let alone a five year plan, but if you do have a five year plan and you do road traffic work the impact of driverless cars on your practice should be the number one item.

In September 2016 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the United States Department of Transportation, published its detailed policy on driverless cars and that is entitled Federal Automated Vehicles Policy – Accelerating the Next Revolution in Roadway Safety, and, as the name suggests, it applies to all states of the United States of America.

The front cover says it all: a picture of a car with the back seats in the usual positions and the front seats with their back to the windscreen facing the other passengers.


On 13 October 2016 President Barack Obama hosted a summit in Pittsburgh bringing together car makers to talk about ways to speed up the use of autonomous vehicles.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee is holding an enquiry into the use of driverless cars and written submissions closed on 26 October and the House of Lords took oral evidence in November 2016.

Written by kerryunderwood

December 12, 2016 at 6:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses

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  1. Hi Kerry,

    Really interesting piece.

    I spent a day with Renault Nissan Alliance last week – they are aiming for driverless by 2020, their 2016 Qashqais are already being built with ‘single lane’ autonomy….in Sunderland.

    Did anything come of Rory Cellan Jones’ connection?





    December 12, 2016 at 7:05 am

    • Thanks David

      Interesting about Renault Nissan- 2020/21 seems to be target date for many manufacturers, but developments seem to be speeding up.

      Rory and I are in touch with each other, but I haven’t done any broadcasts on the subject yet.

      Thanks for the introduction.



      December 12, 2016 at 8:09 am

  2. Sorry Kerry I find it diffcult getting my mind round the idea of driverless cars ss a matter of practical reality. I live in a rural area with difficult roads and unpredictable travel conditions, i can’t see how a driverless vehicle could replace thevconventional variety.

    Gareth Thomas

    December 12, 2016 at 8:08 am

    • Gareth

      Already bring trialled extensively on rural roads in UK- but law currently requires driver to be able to take back control. I am not a scientist or car-maker but there is no doubt that driverless cars work. Why do you think they are less likely- properly programmed- to make worse judgment calls than drivers?

      All the evidence is the opposite. Problem is the transitional period when driven and driverless cars are on the road together. To get the full benefits of driverless cars, driven ones need to be banned, or restricted to certain roads, quite quickly.

      That may be a difficult – even unacceptable- political decision.



      December 12, 2016 at 8:14 am

  3. Who is going to pay to upgrade all the road signs and markings in the UK? – Bristol has just spent millions on 20 mph signs that the council could ill afford. I’m sure it’s all possible technically but nobody is talking about the costs of implementation.


    December 12, 2016 at 8:39 am

    • Most road signs can be removed – driverless cars won’t read them or need them. Many UK towns and cities have driverless cars already – albeit with drivers available to take control as required by law, although the law is likely to be changed next year or in 2018.Enourmous savings in healthcare, emergency services, time off work and benefits will pay for road adaptations hundreds of times over. Not just “possible technically” – Singapore’s entire taxi fleet is now driverless and millions of miles have been travelled on UK roads by driverless cars.

      Volvo, Renault-Nissan and Ford have all announced that they expect to be mass-producing driverless cars by 2020 or 2021 – that means that the prototypes are there already.



      December 12, 2016 at 9:58 am

  4. You are right about this. Whether it will happen as envisaged, and how it will pan out remains to be seen. I know for example Road Engineers working in local highway authorities who even now are thinking that this will avoid the need for any more large scale road building programmes (not that we have had one since the last proposals were cancelled back in the mid 1990s). Without driverless cars, the roads are basically full in much of the country at peak times (and the likes of the M6 / M1 / M25 are linear car parks the entire day outside the early hours of the morning). Significant sums of money (that make HS2 look like pocket money) would need to be spent in around 10 to 15 years to stop gridlock and the country shutting down.

    But driverless cars, that travel in convoy at the optimum scientific speed to allow throughput -vs- congestions could be the solution. [e.g, if every car from Manchester to London did a constant and exact 61.4MPH, they could do the journey in 2 hours 40 minutes. At the moment the driver tries to drive at 80MPH, but comes up against a car doing 70 so has to break to 65. They then end up slowing to 60MPH, and then hits roadworks, slows to 45, gets behind a truck, brake lights on. The car behind slows to 42. And so on, then more vehicles pour in, and block the road. It’s then 45 minutes of congestion. And then 30 miles down the road, and HGV has crashed, blocking two lanes, etc.] That means no more road needed.

    And for that reason alone, it is going to be pushed heavily by the Government when the penny drops about the savings it will make.

    Dominic Cooper

    December 13, 2016 at 4:59 pm

    • I agree entirely. It hits a very raw nerve with many people though. I understand the view of people who say that it is undesirable, but many are saying “They will never be able to make driverless cars”, There are hundreds on our roads right now being tested.



      December 13, 2016 at 5:05 pm

  5. […] excellent blog post from Kerry Underwood highlights the future problems faced by RTA lawyers as a result of the development of driverless […]

  6. The main issue I see is affordability for many people. Is Gov’t going to subsidies new cars for everyone? will motorbikes be driver-less? Banned? I can see it happening in Central London and some major cities but very difficult to implement fully. Still at least Brexit will help remove some of the human rights arguments…!

    Alex Brown

    December 15, 2016 at 10:51 am

  7. Alex

    We signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights 27 years before we joined the European Union. Cannot believe anyone thinks that the European Union has done anything for human rights.

    I voted to leave so that my elected Parliament could decide these issues, not an unelected commission.

    Motorbikes, pedal cycles are an issue,

    Driverless cars should be cheaper and of course there will be no insurance premiums. No doubt there will be a second-hand market just as now, so given the transitional period, I don’t see the problem – as driven cars go, so second hand driverless cars will become available.



    December 15, 2016 at 11:39 am

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