As systems allowing a person to control a car remotely are becoming more widespread, the Law Commission is seeking views from experts and stakeholders on the problems that remote driving may present and potential solutions. Lawrence Thomas and Sarah Drew, from our Financial Services team, explore some of the issues already identified.
Remote driving can have many different uses. BMW, for example, has a feature on some of its models that allows the driver to reverse their car out of a parking space using the key as a remote control. More comprehensive remote driving systems are also being used in mining and agriculture. But how does the existing legal framework apply to remote driving on roads shared with other road users?
To find answers, the law Commission published a 93-page Issues Paper highlighting uncertainties and risks in the way current legislation applies to remote driving, and seeking views on new regulations in both the short and long term to address these challenges. These views will be collected over the coming months and fed into a report for the Government either late this year or early next year.
Perhaps surprisingly, there is nothing within the current road traffic laws of England and Wales that specifically requires a driver to be in the car or that expressly prevents someone from “driving” a car remotely on the road. But there are, as the Issues Paper notes, several potential legislative pitfalls that a remote driver would face. For example, there is a rule  that prohibits a driver from being in a position to see a screen which is displaying non-driving related information. This arguably applies to driving via a computer screen that also gives text message notifications, for example. In addition, there are well known regulations  that prevent the use of mobile phones and other hand-held devices, which would prevent a driver from controlling their car on the open road with their phone.
Other questions raised include whether remote driving allows the driver a “full view of the road and traffic ahead”  or if the driver leaves the vehicle “unattended” . These are difficult questions. Potentially, existing legal mechanisms could absolve a remote driver from breaching the current regulations but in short, the Issues Paper suggests that the current road traffic laws are not sufficient to regulate the use of modern remote driving technology, given the rate of change we are seeing in this area.
Aside from the issues concerning the legality of remote driving, the Law Commission identified further problems that remote driving on public roads could bring. They have divided these into three categories:
A driver in a car is typically responsible for the control of the vehicle but the additional “moving parts” of remote driving – such as software, internet connection, and electronic screens – causes the Law Commission concern that establishing who is to blame in an accident would be more complex. For example, if a car being driven remotely were to lose connection and cause an accident, would the provider of the internet connection or the remote driver be to blame? If the driver is employed by a remote taxi service, should it be the taxi service who picks up the bill? Ultimately, the Law Commission is anxious that added complexity in the claims process will affect the injured party’s ability to gain compensation quickly (if at all).
The Law Commission also raises safety challenges that come with remote driving. Again, the reliability of connection to the vehicle could affect safety, especially in rural locations. The situational awareness of the driver, who wouldn’t feel acceleration or braking, could be distorted. In addition, the cybersecurity of an internet-based remote driving system could be compromised and exploited by criminals. The most vivid example the Law Commission provides is that of a terrorist organisation intercepting the connection to a remote vehicle and using the vehicle for an attack.
As the adoption of meetings over video conferencing software has shown us during the pandemic, an internet-based service is relatively unbound by geographical restrictions. Similarly, a car could be remotely driven in London from Sydney as easily as it could be driven from Reading. The Law Commission is concerned that, in the event of an accident, enforcing criminal charges or civil liability in other jurisdictions would be difficult.
The Issues Paper discusses the approach of other countries, including from the USA, Germany, Japan, and Australia, which have differing levels of acceptance of remote driving – from Japan who only allow it in emergency situations, to Louisiana, which has a much more progressive legislative approach. The Law Commission has tentatively suggested the following options for reform:
The Issues Paper is a “call to arms” for experts and stakeholders to give their input, so it’s too early for any hard conclusions at this stage but it will be interesting to see what the Law Commission presents to the Government later as the process moves forward. Nevertheless, an overhaul of existing legislation will be required before any of us hail a taxi being driven from anywhere but the driver’s seat.
 Within Regulation 109 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 (the “1986 Regulations”).
 Regulation 110 of the 1986 Regulations
 Regulation 104 of the 1986 Regulations.
 Regulation 107 of the 1986 Regulations.