Automated Vehicles Act 2024: An overview of the regulatory framework for automated and autonomous vehicles in the UK


The timely and safe use of highly developed automated driving features in road traffic is a stated goal of the European Union. The UK also sees great potential for increasing road safety and economic opportunities in vehicle automation.

In this context, a bill was drafted with the involvement of the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (“CCAV”) in the UK, which reports to the Department for Transport, and was passed into law on 20 May 2024. The Automated Vehicles Act 2024 (the “AV Act”) creates the national legal framework for the use of automated vehicles in the UK. From a regulatory perspective, the comprehensive regulations can be summarised as follows:

  • The AV Act centres on the regulatory framework for the use – and therefore not the mere testing – of automated vehicles on public roads in the UK. Motor vehicles with level 3 and level 4 automation (as defined by the SAE J3016 standard) are equally covered. Level 5 autonomous vehicles, on the other hand, are not covered by the provisions of the AV Act.
  • Under the AV Act, a distinction is made between two modes of operation when using an automated driving feature. The user-in-charge mode relates only to level 3 applications. The no-user-in-charge operating mode then covers level 4 automation.
  • The basic requirement for authorised use as an automated vehicle is that the vehicle pass a self-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, above all safely and in compliance with traffic regulations (“legally”).
  • The adoption of accompanying safety principles is intended to ensure that the use of an automated vehicle is safe. This means that automated vehicles must achieve an acceptable level of safety that is at least as high as that of careful and competent human drivers. Overall, the use of automated vehicles must be accompanied by an improvement in road safety.
  • While the AV Act sets out the initial regulatory framework for the use of automated vehicles, the specific requirements and further provisions still have to be developed. In addition to the formulation of safety principles, requirements also need to be implemented in test procedures, for example. Only when the corresponding regulatory loopholes – some of which are explicitly addressed in the AV Act – have been closed by supplementary legal acts will it be possible to use automated vehicles in series production in the UK under the AV Act.

In Germany, a corresponding regulatory framework has already been created with the 2017 amendment to the German Road Traffic Act (highly or fully automated driving features in the sense of level 3 automation) and with the 2021 amendment to the German Road Traffic Act (autonomous driving features in the sense of level 4 automation). There are both parallels and differences compared to the regulatory approach in the UK. The most important regulatory aspects of the AV Act are therefore set out below. In detail:

Area of application

When it comes to the automation of motor vehicles, the classification of the automation levels based on the SAE J3016 standard is normally applied (see, for example, the reference to SAE Standard J3016 in section 228.02 under Title 13, Division 1, Chapter 1 Article 3.8 of the California Code of Regulations).

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

  • the vehicle is controlled exclusively by the technical equipment and
  • neither the vehicle itself nor the vehicle surroundings are monitored by a person in order to intervene directly in the driving of the vehicle.

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

Differentiation between two operating modes

According to the provisions of the AV Act, an activated automated feature does not have to be monitored by the vehicle user. It should be emphasised in this context that a distinction is made between two modes of operation for automated features:

  • a vehicle user ready to take over control of the vehicle is available (user-in-charge mode) or
  • there is no vehicle user ready to take over (no-user-in-charge mode).

There are further provisions that apply to these modes, the regulatory content of which is also familiar from the two amendments to the German Road Traffic Act:

Transition situation in user-in-charge mode (level 3)

“User-in-charge” means that a vehicle user is inside the vehicle and is generally able to take control of the vehicle (see section 46 of the AV Act). As part of a user-in-charge feature, section 7 of the AV Act provides for the vehicle user to take control of the vehicle when requested to do so by the vehicle (“transition demand”).

Such a transition situation also exists in the German concept, as can be seen in section 1b(2) no. 1 German Road Traffic Act, which was introduced in 2017. According to the provisions of the AV Act (as in the German equivalent in the German Road Traffic Act), no specific duration (“transition period”) is specified during which the vehicle user must take over control of the vehicle. According to section 7(3) of the AV Act, specific regulations must still be issued to describe the transition situation in more detail and to ensure that it operates safely. The points addressed under section 7(3) appear to be based on paragraph 5.4 of UN Regulation No. 157.

External instance in no-user-in-charge mode (level 4)

A transition situation is excluded for driving features where there is no vehicle user ready to take over (no-user-in-charge). However, section 12(3) AV Act provides for the automated journey to be overseen by a licensed operator for this operating mode.

It is not clear from the wording of the AV Act whether the operator may be inside or outside the vehicle. In view of the differentiation between user-in-charge (where a person ready to drive the vehicle must be present in the vehicle) and no-user-in-charge, there is much to suggest that the operator is outside the vehicle. The scope of the operator oversight provided for according to the legal text is also unclear. The tasks of the operator in accordance with section 12(5) AV Act, i.e. the detection of, and response to, problems arising during a no-user-in-charge journey overseen by the operator, indicate that the operator does not have to oversee the entire journey and does not have to be able to respond immediately. Nevertheless, a certain degree of attention is required so that the operator can recognise possible faults during the journey.

The principle of an external instance for the use of level 4 vehicles has also been enshrined in the German Road Traffic Act for motor vehicles with autonomous driving features in defined operating areas in 2021. In this respect, parallels can be drawn with the technical supervisor (“Technische Aufsicht”) within the meaning of section 1d(3) of the German Road Traffic Act. However, constant monitoring of the journey by the technical supervisor is precisely not provided for by law. Instead, it intervenes in the traffic situation "on call" from the automated vehicle and, for example, approves suggested driving manoeuvres (see section 1e(2) no. 9 German Road Traffic Act) or is independently informed by the vehicle about technical impairments (see section 1e(2) no. 6 German Road Traffic Act). As a result, the involvement of the AV Act operator in the driving process appears to be more comprehensive than that of the technical supervisor under the German Road Traffic Act.

Conclusion and outlook

While the AV Act represents an important step towards the standardised use of automated vehicles in the UK, it currently provides only an initial framework, with specific provisions and requirements still to be developed. This approach was also pursued in Germany, for example, as part of the 2021 amendment to the German Road Traffic Act, where detailed specifications were made in a subsequent regulation on autonomous driving in specified operating areas (Autonomous Vehicles Approval and Operation Ordinance – AFGBV) and its annexes, which came after the amendment to the German Road Traffic Act (see here for more details).

The specific regulation of the self-driving test is particularly eagerly awaited, as it is the technical specifications and validation of the safe use of automated driving features at level 3 and level 4 that represent a major regulatory challenge for both the legislators and the manufacturer. It also remains to be seen whether the requirements placed on the operator within the meaning of the AV Act will be as strict as those placed on a technical supervisor (“Technische Aufsicht”) in section 14 sentence 2 of the German ordinance on autonomous driving in specified operating areas (AFGBV).

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

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