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Driverless cars – understanding the rules of the road for specially made or modified vehicles

Posted: 13/07/2018

Immense interest is being shown in the technology involved in driverless cars and in identifying uses to which these vehicles could eventually be put. There is a high level of commercial opportunity around this subject.

We have written elsewhere about the current law relating to the use of automated vehicles in England and Wales, but one important point to note is that before any vehicle can be used on the public roads at all, it has to have appropriate safety licences and is at all times subject to the Construction and Use Regulations.

All vehicles to be used on the road in Europe must have a European Community Whole Vehicle Licence (ECWVT). To obtain this, they must meet environmental, safety and security standards. The licence covers not just the vehicle as a whole but also component parts and systems. Once vehicle models have an ECWVT, then individual vehicles of that type need only have a Certificate of Conformity. For this, the manufacturing system used to produce them must be capable of conformity with the type approval.

If a vehicle which already has an ECWVT is being modified to enable it to be used on UK roads as a driverless vehicle, careful thought needs to be given to licensing of the modified vehicle as changes to components and systems or the addition of new systems would be likely to render the vehicle non-compliant with its original type approval and Certificate of Conformity.

There are two relevant schemes: 

  • the National Small Series Type Approval Scheme covers situations where a manufacturer is proposing to make only a small series of vehicles for sale. In these circumstances it may be able to rely on the original type approval for unchanged parts of the vehicle, but could require type authorisation both for the components and systems used in the modification. Once this type of approval is obtained for a single approval, other modified vehicles can be made in line with a Certificate of Conformity;
  • the alternative, the Individual Approval Scheme, applies to the manufacture (or modification) of a very small number of vehicles and is based on an inspection scheme. Under this scheme, the modified vehicle (that is not a kit conversion to which separate rules apply) has to be registered as a new car even if it has an existing registration plate. The application for registration must be accompanied by details of the original type approval, the modifications made and information about the components used in the modification, together with photographs and an inspection report. 

The DVSA has relevant guidance and forms on its website and early consultation is strongly recommended. Where an application for approval is turned down, the whole process can be appealed.

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