For years, autonomous vehicles were something people deemed fantasy only to be seen in futuristic films, but Tesla has made it a reality with Tesla Autopilot. United Kingdom citizens can purchase their very own Tesla vehicle complete with Tesla Autopilot capabilities, but many are wary of the legality behind this technology. This is why we’re here to provide some insight on the subject.
Tesla Autopilot is an advanced assisted driving program with a Level 2 rank on the Autonomous Driving Scale, rendering it an example of partial driving automation. It is legal in the UK as long as the driver is alert and ready to take control when necessary because it is not an example of full driving automation but merely a driving assistance feature.
Although Tesla Autopilot is legal in the UK, there are a lot of questions surrounding its capabilities and what drivers are permitted to do while the program is in use. All of which we will answer. Surprisingly, there have also been some very recent legal changes in the UK surrounding technology similar to Tesla’s Autopilot, which we will discuss as well.
So, It’s a Self-Driving Car?
This is where a lot of the legal issues and confusion arise with the Tesla Autopilot, which we’ll discuss specifically through the lens of the UK later.
A Tesla vehicle built with the Tesla Autopilot advanced assisted driving program is not a fully autonomous self-driving car. Its title might be deceiving, but it more or less implies that the program is just a vastly improved version of a basic car’s cruise control.
Tesla Autopilot can’t make your car shift lanes, identify traffic signs or lights, navigate round-abouts or any of the other features necessary to be able to function efficiently without any human intervention. Drivers must be in the driver’s seat, attentive, and ready to take control when necessary.
While Tesla fully intends to keep improving the program, it is only there to assist you in driving and take a fraction of the control under your supervision.
Is Autopilot Legal in the UK?
There’s no doubt that Tesla’s Autopilot is a fantastic and highly desirable vehicular program that many drivers are anxious to see improve, but if you live in the UK and know some of the laws passed by the Department of Transport, you might be questioning the legality surrounding this program.
Rest assured, both Tesla vehicles and the use of Tesla Autopilot are completely legal in the United Kingdom as long as the driver is fulfilling all of the requirements previously stated (ex. in control, attentive, etc.)
Drivers cross the line into illegal territory when they utilize more autonomous features, like those seen in Tesla’s Full Self-Driving program, and decide to kick up their feet and take the back seat.
In order for you to legally drive an automated car in the UK, it must be identified as a Level 2 or lower on the Autonomous Driving Scale. There are six levels total on this scale. To help identify which we are referring to and what each level entails, we have provided a comprehensive table below.
|Autonomous Driving Level||Degree of Driving Automation||What it Entails|
|Level 0||No Driving Automation||The vehicle has absolutely no automation technology, rendering the driving solely responsible for all of the car’s functions, including steering, accelerating, braking, parking, and any maneuvering.|
|Level 1||Driver Assistance||The vehicle features at least one driver support system that assists with either steering or braking/acceleration. Adaptive cruise control is a common example of this.|
|Level 2||Partial Driving Automation||This is where the Tesla Autopilot lies on the scale. It entails that a vehicle has advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS), allowing it to take over steering, acceleration, and braking in specific scenarios.|
|Level 3||Conditional Driving Automation||This vehicle is equipped with various driver assistance systems and artificial intelligence, allowing it to make decisions based on changing driving situations around the vehicle. The most significant difference here is that no supervision of the vehicle is required. But, the driver has to be present, alert, and ready to regain control in the event of an emergency.|
|Level 4||High Driving Automation||This vehicle does not require any human input or interference to run properly. Passengers can be completely unconscious or otherwise occupied. While the vehicle is fully autonomous, it cannot go anywhere. It is programmed to travel from point A to point B and nowhere else. Severe weather might inhibit its functions.|
|Level 5||Full Driving Automation||This vehicle can do it all. It can go wherever necessary under and conditions completely without human input. Apart from providing a destination, this vehicle can function solely under its own abilities safely and efficiently.|
Clearly, a Level 5 Full Driving Automation vehicle isn’t on the horizon, particularly when considering accessibility in modern society. However, some vehicles are already at the Level 3 stage and even getting close to Level 4.
Of course, these are the vehicles that make people the most excited and wary, considering they finally allow you to cross into the threshold of not contributing to driving a vehicle at all, apart from emergency situations.
Currently, anything above a Level 2, where the Tesla Autopilot lies, is illegal in the UK and most countries, for that matter. Fortunately for autonomous driving enthusiasts, that is about to change very soon.
UK’s New Laws on ALKS and Autonomous Driving
Up until now, any vehicle rated above a Level 2 on the Autonomous Driving Scale was deemed too unsafe to be legal in the United Kingdom. The technology wasn’t anywhere near the degree of reliability and safety that is required for the UK government to legally allow its citizens to use freely.
Fortunately, significant advancements have been made regarding automated lane-keeping systems (ALKS) to the point that the UK government, specifically the Department for Transport, will deem them legal by the end of 2021.
Of course, there are conditions to this new law. To start, there is a speed restriction on ALKS technology. Only vehicles driving at 37 miles per hour or below are permitted to utilize this function for hands-free driving.
The other major stipulation is that a driver must still be present in the driver seat and ready to take control whenever the ALKS technology deems necessary. In the event of an emergency or situation where the technology cannot maintain control and make decisions, it will relinquish control to the driver, who must be ready to take over instantly.
Otherwise, they are free to have their attention elsewhere, perhaps playing a game, watching a film, doing work on a laptop, or any other hands-free tasks they please.
Legal Implications of the New Level 3 Law
An interesting effect of this new law is how it will undoubtedly cause a ripple effect and promote the creation of new laws surrounding it to guarantee the safety and rights of all citizens. For instance, there is currently a proposal to change the Highway Code to recognize the new law for ALKS and what the use of this technology will mean for drivers and those sharing the road.
The ultimate goal is for a new law to be passed that will differentiate a human driver in control from an automated vehicle and state that a driver is not responsible for how an automated vehicle drives when it is not required for them to be in control.
No doubt there is a lot attached to such a law, and finding a way to navigate legislature surrounding this technology is going to be challenging, to say the least.
Not only is it legal to use Tesla’s Autopilot in the UK, but the nation has also taken significant strides towards ALKS technology in general with its legalization of Level 3 vehicles by the end of 2021. They will be one of the first nations to legally permit the use of such technology, so it stands to reason that all eyes worldwide will be on them to see the repercussions of this decision socially, legally, infrastructurally, and technologically.