Does the rise of driverless cars mean the end of the driving licence?
22nd March 2019
With 10 million connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) predicted to be sold worldwide by 20251 and the UK Government investing over £120 million in CAV research projects2 like FLOURISH, it will not be long before driverless cars appear on UK roads. We already know that CAVs will have a profound effect on the way consumers interact with motor vehicles, but will the rise of autonomous vehicle functionality mean driving licences are no longer needed?
The issue of driving licences is an important one and makes up a key question of the Law Commission’s most recent consultation on autonomous vehicles. It is especially important for certain demographics in society for which driverless cars offer significant benefits to the quality of an individual’s life. One of the key aims of FLOURISH is to better understand how CAVs can improve mobility for individuals who are unable to drive; this may be through disability or old age. For these individuals, CAVs could offer an alternative means of transport which positively affects their life.
Whether CAVs do provide a form of transport without a driving licence depends on the level of automation. There is currently no clear and concise definition of CAVs, however since the passage of the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act in 2017, the most widely used reference to vehicle autonomy is the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Levels. SAE Levels range from 0 (No Automation) to 5 (Full Automation). For levels 0 to 3, these vehicles are not considered as autonomous vehicles and therefore a driving licence would be required. For a level 4 vehicle, which is considered as “High Automation”, the vehicle would still require a user to be able to drive at some points and the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act sets out that the user is liable whilst the vehicle is not in automated mode. Therefore, it would also be necessary for the user of a SAE level 4 vehicle to hold a driving licence.
This all changes for a level 5 fully automated vehicle, where the vehicle can make informed decisions, control itself and does not require a driver to take control in any situation. In these circumstances a vehicle could be deployed without a human driver and the occupant would be considered a passenger rather than a driver. For vehicles considered 100% autonomous, there would be no requirement for the occupant to hold a driving licence.
So, how far are we from seeing SAE level 4 and level 5 vehicles on our roads? It has been estimated from research undertaken by Thatcham that Level 4 vehicles will be on UK roads by 2021/22 and Level 5 vehicles will reach the market around 20253. From the estimations here, it is clear that the driving licence will continue to be required for many years to come.
The question of the driving licence highlights a broader point that must be addressed for the widespread acceptance of automated vehicles by consumers. It is fundamental that stakeholders associated with autonomous vehicles facilitate greater levels of public awareness and understanding of driverless cars to ensure the public are clear on the limitations of autonomous vehicles and the responsibilities they have when they sit inside one.
In the future, the need for a driving licence will diminish as the level of automation increases. As the CAV industry evolves, there will be changes to how motor vehicle use is authorised, however we have many years for the Government, public bodies, academics and industry to investigate how a new regime can function safely, whilst providing a means of mobility for individuals who do not currently have it.
By Sophie Bonnel, AXA
 Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (2017). Market Forecast for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. [Online]. July 2017. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/642813/15780_TSC_Market_Forecast_for_CAV_Report_FINAL.pdf
 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (2018). Transformational investment in off-road self-driving technology. [Online]. February 2018. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/transformational-investment-in-off-road-self-driving-technology
 Thatcham Research & The Association of British Insurers. Regulating Automated Driving: The UK Insurer View. [Online]. July 2017. Available at: http://news.thatcham.org/documents/regulating-automated-driving-a-uk-insurer-view-69167
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