A review of the regulatory framework for automated and autonomous vehicles in the UK

The timely and safe use of highly advanced automated driving functions in road traffic is a stated objective of the European Union. The UK also sees great potential to increase road safety and economic opportunities in vehicle automation.

In this context, the UK Center for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (“CCAV”), which is part of the Department for Transport, drafted a bill that was passed on May 20, 2024. The Automated Vehicles Bill 2024 (“AV Bill”) creates a national The legal framework for the use of automated vehicles in the UK. From a regulatory point of view, the comprehensive regulations can be summarized as follows:

  • The AV Act focuses on the regulatory framework for the use – and therefore not just testing – of automated vehicles on public roads in the UK. Motor vehicles with Level 3 and Level 4 automation (as defined in SAE J3016) receive the same protection. Level 5 autonomous vehicles, however, are not covered by the provisions of the AV Act.
  • According to the AV Act, there are two operating modes when using automated driving functions. Responsible user mode only applies to level 3 applications. Unattended mode then includes level 4 automation.
  • The basic requirement for approval for use as an automated vehicle is for the vehicle to pass an autonomous driving test, which has not yet been specified in detail. The purpose of the test procedure is to ensure that the vehicle moves autonomously in road traffic during an automated journey, primarily safely and in accordance with road traffic regulations (“legally”).
  • The adoption of the accompanying safety rules is intended to ensure the safe use of the automated vehicle. This means that automated vehicles must achieve an acceptable level of safety that is at least as high as that of careful and competent drivers. Overall, the use of automated vehicles must be accompanied by improvements in road safety.
  • While the AV Act sets out an initial regulatory framework for the use of automated vehicles, detailed requirements and further regulations still need to be developed. In addition to formulating safety rules, requirements must also be implemented, for example in test procedures. Only when the relevant regulatory gaps – some of which have been expressly addressed by the AV Bill – are addressed by additional legislation will it be possible for automated vehicles to be used in series production in the UK under the AV Bill.

In Germany, an appropriate regulatory framework has already been created with the 2017 amendment to the German Road Traffic Act (elements of highly or fully automated driving in the sense of level 3 automation) and the 2021 amendment to the German Road Traffic Act (autonomous driving functions in the sense level 4 automation). There are both similarities and differences to the UK regulatory approach. Therefore, the most important regulatory aspects of the AV Act are presented below. In detail:

Area of ​​application

When it comes to motor vehicle automation, a classification of levels of automation based on SAE J3016 is typically used (see, for example, the reference to SAE J3016 in Section 228.02 of Title 13, Division 1, Chapter 1, Article 3.8 of the California Code of Regulations).

However, the AV Act does not contain any reference to such a classification, i.e. no reference to stages or levels of automation. There is an analogy here to sections 1a et seq. German Road Traffic Act, which also does not refer to a technical classification, but describes automation in a legally binding manner for the national scope of application (see Art. 1a(2) German Road Traffic Act; Art. 1d(1) in conjunction with Art. .1e section 2 of the German Road Traffic Act). In section 1, paragraph 5 describes in more detail what is meant by autonomous driving. Therefore, the vehicle moves “autonomously” if

  • the vehicle is controlled solely by technical equipment AND
  • neither the vehicle itself nor the vehicle’s surroundings are monitored by a person to directly interfere with driving.

This definition actually describes level 3 and 4 automation, where constant monitoring by the vehicle user is not exactly necessary.

Distinguish between two operating modes

Pursuant to the provisions of the AV Act, activated automation does not have to be monitored by the vehicle user. It should be emphasized in this context that there are two modes of operation of automated functions:

  • a vehicle user is available and is ready to take control of the vehicle (responsible user mode) or
  • there is no vehicle user ready to take over (userless mode).

Further regulations apply to these means of transport, the content of which is also known from two amendments to the German Road Traffic Act:

Intermittent situation in Responsible User Mode (Level 3)

“Responsible user” means that the vehicle operator is inside the vehicle and can essentially take control of the vehicle (see Article 46 AV). As part of the function of responsible user, section 7 of the AV Act provides that the operator of a vehicle may take control of the vehicle when the vehicle requests it (‘request to transfer’).

Such a transitional situation also exists in the German concept, as can be seen in § 1b section 1 of the German Road Traffic Act, which was introduced in 2017. According to the provisions of the AV Act (as in the German equivalent of the German Road Traffic Act), there is no specific time (“transition period”) during which the vehicle user must take over control of the vehicle. Pursuant to Art. 7 section 3 of the AV Act, detailed regulations still need to be issued to describe the transitional situation in more detail and ensure its safe operation. It appears that the points discussed in section 7(1) 3 are based on paragraph 5.4 of UN Regulation No 157.

External instance in headless mode (level 4)

A transient situation is excluded in the case of driving functions where there is no vehicle user ready to take over (no user-in-charge). However, Art. 12 section 3 of the AV Act provides that the automated ride will be supervised by an operator licensed for this mode of operation.

It is not clear from the wording of the AV Act whether the operator may be inside or outside the vehicle. Given the distinction between a responsible user (where there must be someone in the vehicle ready to drive the vehicle) and a non-responsible user, there are many indications that the operator is outside the vehicle. The scope of operator supervision provided for in the legal text is also unclear. Operator’s tasks in accordance with Art. 12 section 5 of the AV Act, i.e. detection and response to problems occurring during a trip without charges supervised by the operator, indicate that the operator does not have to supervise the entire trip and does not have to be able to react immediately. However, some attention is required so that the operator can recognize possible faults during the journey.

The external authority rule for the use of Level 4 vehicles is also enshrined in the German Road Traffic Act for motor vehicles with autonomous driving functions in certain operating areas in 2021. In this respect, similarities can be seen with the technical manager (“Technische Aufsicht”) in within the meaning of art. 1d section 3 of the German Road Traffic Act. However, the Act does not provide for constant monitoring of the journey by the technical manager. Instead, it intervenes in the traffic situation “on request” from the automated vehicle and, for example, approves suggested driving maneuvers (see § 1e(2) No. 9 of the German Road Traffic Act) or is independently informed by the vehicle about technical faults (see Art. 1e section 2 no. 6 of the German Road Traffic Act). As a result, the involvement of the AV Act operator in the driving process appears to be more comprehensive than the involvement of the technical supervisor under the German Road Traffic Act.

Conclusions and perspectives

While the AV Bill is an important step towards harmonizing the use of automated vehicles in the UK, it currently only provides an initial framework, with detailed regulations and requirements still to be developed. This approach has also been used in Germany, for example in the 2021 amendment to the German Road Traffic Act, where detailed specifications are set out in a further regulation on autonomous driving in specific areas of operation (Ordinance on the Approval and Operation of Autonomous Vehicles – AFGBV) . and its annexes, which came into force after the amendment of the German Road Traffic Act (more details here).

Detailed regulations for the autonomous driving test are particularly eagerly awaited, as the technical specifications and validation of the safe use of autonomous driving functions at Level 3 and 4 represent a major regulatory challenge for both legislators and the manufacturer. Time will tell whether the requirements imposed on the operator under the AV Act will be as stringent as those imposed on the technical supervisor (“Technische Aufsicht”) in Art. 14 sentence 2 of the German Ordinance on Autonomous Driving in Certain Operational Areas (AFGBV).

Overall, it is clear that significant regulatory work will still be required before the first automated vehicles can be used on public roads in the UK.