Current legal trends in Robotics and Autonomous Systems


As a society, we are beginning to recognise the importance of balancing the regulation of the development and use of RAS technology against allowing enough freedom for the technology to develop and avoid stifling innovation.With robots and AI now hitting the headlines on almost a daily basis, in one form or another, and the technology being used and applied in a rapidly growing number of industry sectors, the need to modify and clarify certain laws for the application of RAS technology is being addressed and new legislation is being implemented specifically to tackle these issues. As Elon Musk recently tweeted,

“Nobody likes being regulated, but everything (cars, planes, food, drugs, etc) that’s a danger to the public is regulated. AI should be too.”

The main focus of rule makers internationally so far has been on autonomous vehicles (where current road safety laws are being changed to enable research and development and new laws enacted (see below) to address insurance and liability gaps), drones (where the emphasis is safety of use and security) and heath care. Additionally, product liability laws, consumer laws, criminal laws, laws relating to negligence and duties of care, human rights laws and more will come into play to regulate how robots are bought, sold, maintained and used.

The UK government has played an important role so far in considering these issues, with its publication of the code of practice for the testing of automated vehicle technologies in July 2015, the House of Commons, Science and Technology Committee Report on robotics and artificial intelligence produced in September 2016 and the recent appointment of the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence in June this year, which was appointed to consider the economic, ethical and social implications of the advances in artificial intelligence. The recent call for written evidence by the Select Committee is now being considered and supplemented by way of a series of oral evidence submissions and Bristows’ contribution to the written evidence was recently published on the House of Lords dedicated website on artificial intelligence.

Further, the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill (which follows the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill) was presented to the House of Commons on 18th October 2017 and had its second reading debate last week on 23rdOctober. The bill is intended to “set the regulatory framework to enable the next wave of transport technology to be invented, designed, made and used in the United Kingdom.”

In Europe, the Committee on Legal Affairs of the European Parliament produced a report containingrecommendations to the Commission on the Civil Law rules on Robotics on 27 January 2017. The report’s rapporteur Mady Delvaux (MEP) stated that, “a growing number of areas of our daily lives are increasingly affected by robotics. In order to address this reality and to ensure that robots are and will remain in the service of humans, we urgently need to create a robust European legal framework”.

Further, as discussed in our recent briefing article, the German government has placed itself at the forefront in considering the regulation of this technology (alongside the UK) by committing to an action plan to adopt the findings of a report commissioned by its Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. The report focuses on the need to consider the ethical implications and dilemmas presented by the technology, and suggests a combination of adapting current law, standardisation measures and new legislation to tackle these issues.

In the US, the hot topics are currently UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), particularly in relation to their military and law enforcement applications, as well as in industry, and autonomous vehicles in the public space, such as autonomous cars, where US based innovators such as Google are extensively testing the technology.

RAS are becoming more prevalent in our society and so far have been accepted because the application of the technology has been gradual and we have been able to adjust to the state of the art by adapting existing laws and regulatory regimes. However, as the advances in the technology continue to develop at an ever increasing speed, the need to regulate is becoming ever more pressing to prevent incidents that will cause potentially irreparable harm, both in the short term to individuals and to the future development of a genuinely disruptive and beneficial technology should such incidents destroy public trust in the technology.