Jeremy Sirrell, a Partner at Palmers Solicitors who specialises in road traffic law, has said that a Tesla driver who sat in the passenger seat as his semi-autonomous car travelled up the M1 was lucky to have avoided prison, after being convicted of Dangerous Driving.
He made the comments after Bahavesh Patel was disqualified from driving for 18 months and given 100 hours’ community service.
Mr Patel was in the passenger seat of his Tesla S 60, when it was filmed by a passenger in another car with a vacant driver’s seat.
“The case raises interesting questions about autonomous cars and how the law should regard them,” said Jeremy Sirrell.
“There is no doubt that it is only a question of time before fully autonomous cars hit our roads, indeed they have already been tested in California and surreptitiously in this country as well.
“At present, there are no fully autonomous cars on sale but it is only a question of time before they are. The law will need to adapt to the position at that time as there are important questions as to exactly what responsibility the driver will have in the event, for example, of a crash. These issues have already been exercising lawyers in advance of the technology arriving.”
He added that while semi-autonomous cars are currently available, the autonomous driving modes are there to assist the driver, rather than to supplant the driver.
“Technology has now reached the stage at which cars can detect their distance from the car in front and general traffic conditions, and even to a limited degree manoeuvre either into parking spaces or between lanes,” he said.
“All of these functions, however, are only valid with a driver remaining alert and sitting in the driver’s seat, able to take over full control at a moment’s notice.
“Mr Patel’s actions in sitting in the passenger seat were wholly outside the abilities of the car to deal with and grossly irresponsible. He may consider himself extremely fortunate to have escaped a sentence of imprisonment.”
He added: “At present, road traffic laws assume that drivers are always in full control of their cars at all times and if, for any reason, they are not, then the drivers will bear the responsibility. In order words, the law does not recognise any car as being an active participant in the driving experience, other than as a potentially faulty component.
“With the development of fully autonomous vehicles, the law will need to be changed and, in many respects in radical ways, to take account of these new vehicles.
“At present, all those who drive semi-autonomous vehicles must make sure they remain in full potential control of their vehicle at all times.”