09 May 2023
by Jonathan Smart, Samantha Gaurd

Why regulating remote driving must also deal with a fully autonomous future (Guest blog by Shoosmiths)

Guest blog by Jonathan Smart, partner and head of mobility at Shoosmiths and Samantha Gaurd, trainee solicitor at Shoosmiths.

History was made last month after the Department for Transport approved Ford’s ‘BlueCruise’ system - hands-free technology that it is integrating on its electric cars.

The approval will enable British drivers using the system to legally let go of their steering wheels for the first time in designated zones.

The decision represents a turning point in the development and adoption of hands-free technology, and potentially the future of connected and autonomous vehicles in Britain.

Legal status

One condition of Ford’s system is that drivers will not legally be permitted to use their mobile phone or take their attention away from the road.

This requirement represents a clear line in the sand. It means the system is classified as level two on the scale of vehicle autonomy, with motorists using BlueCruise still liable in the event of an accident, as the driver will remain legally in control of the car.

Ford’s system will no doubt yield key data and learnings when it comes to the successful use of self-driving technology. The move from level two to further levels of automation does, however, remain uncertain. This is particularly the case when it comes to how remote driving is regulated – an important precursor in the move to full automation.

Law Commission review

The Law Commission’s recent remote driving review put forward the case for changing the law to respond to safety concerns and a new regulatory regime to govern remote driving.

Shoosmiths contributed to the Law Commission review. This follows experience advising clients on the legal landscape surrounding remote and autonomous driving.

Currently, remote driving is not legally allowed on British roads. There are testbed sites, with firms trialling the technology in controlled environments, using private roads.

One of the key aspects of the review was around how a ‘driver’ is defined and the implications this might have when it comes to remote driving safety and liability.

Shoosmiths’ recommendation was that for now the definition of a driver and the tasks they perform should conform with s104 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986, which states that the ‘driver’ is the person with proper control of the vehicle.

The Law Commission recognised that short-term measures are needed to address potential gaps in the law. This includes where current laws do not expressly prohibit the use of remote driving technology where the driver is beyond the line of sight.

This legal guidance will be critical in enabling the further development of remote driving technology. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that remote driving is only one step in the transition to fully connected and autonomous vehicles.

One of the biggest risks Shoosmiths identified for remote driving technology was the potential for a technological failure.

Though the consultation on remote driving rightly sits separately from its autonomous vehicle consultation, both technologies are interrelated. That is why any efforts to overhaul the current legislative framework must be balanced against the move to fully autonomous vehicles, and the legal changes that will be needed to roll out the technology safely.


As Ford’s system demonstrates, autonomous vehicle technology is being developed at a rapid rate, and there are questions over what the long-term applications of remote driving will be, considering most could logically be carried out autonomously.

As a result, any legislative reform dealing with remote driving must be looked at alongside the framework for autonomous vehicles. This is particularly the case when it comes to safety.

If a vehicle loses communication with the operator, it will need to safely come to a halt in a variety of road situations - from low-speed residential roads through to high-speed motorways. Technologically, this fail safe is not as simple as deploying the brakes, which could create a more immediate accident.

While the civil liability framework remains fit for purpose, there needs to be a technological ability to identify the precise point in time where the operator is in control of the vehicle, when they lose control, the reason for that failure, while also having the vehicle safely stop. This is akin to the aerospace equivalent of a ‘black box’.

However, in the future, autonomous vehicle technology could act as that fail safe.

Remote driving must, therefore, not be seen as completely separate to connected and autonomous vehicles. Connectivity cannot be guaranteed, so safe remote driving is likely to be dependent on a level of autonomous technology being in place for emergencies.

Both types of technology represent exciting new ways to transport people and goods. The Law Commission recognises this, and its commitment to consulting the industry and addressing safety concerns through regulation should be supported.

The process of regulating remote driving must not take place in isolation though. Rather, remote driving should be seen as a key stop-off point on the road to full automation; the legal changes that are introduced now will have a major impact on how we navigate this journey.

Shoosmiths were a headline sponsor of Mobilise 2023, techUK's flagship future of transport conference. You can read the event round-up here. 

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Jonathan Smart

Jonathan Smart

Partner and Head of Mobility , Shoosmiths

Jonathan Smart | LinkedIn

Samantha Gaurd

Samantha Gaurd

Trainee Solicitor, Shoosmiths

Samantha Gaurd | LinkedIn