The Government has been promising action on taxi and private hire licensing reform for many years.  To date, no comprehensive effort by the Government has been forthcoming.  The most recent attempt was the Finish and Task Group on Taxi & Private Hire which was published in September 2018.  Despite the Government’s assurances of a swift response, to date none has been forthcoming.

The principal focus of the current review and debate surrounds technological advancement in smartphone technology in the taxi and private hire sector that has blurred the lines between the lawful operation of a taxi (public hire) and that of a private hire driver and vehicle.

Whilst Government is still scratching its head wondering how to regulate the use of smartphone apps and ride hailing services, innovation in the sector has moved on again.

News of autonomous taxis and flying taxis is becoming increasingly prevalent.  Late last year it was reported that “Self-driving taxis to be launched in London by 2021” after Addison Lee announces alliance with self-driving software company Oxbotica and in September 2018 the UK’s first successful electric vertical take-off and landing “flying taxi” vehicle was launched by Vertical Aerospace in Bristol.

Further afield Tokyo has introduced autonomous taxis in the runup to the Olympics and Waymo is reported to have launched autonomous taxis in Phoenix Arizona in partnership with Alphabet’s (better known as Google’s parent company) self-driving car division.

On a national level, the UK Government has made no secret of the fact that it wants the UK to be the first country to legalise the use of autonomous vehicle technology.  In September 2018 the DfT’s Departments Science Advisory Council supported legislation to legalise autonomous vehicles.  The Government has funded three pilot schemes (Addison Lee being one of the three) around the UK to introduce autonomous vehicle on the roads by 2021.

Once the autonomous taxi sector gets to a place where it is fully sanctioned and legal on UK roads, it is not beyond the realms of possibility for an entire fleet of autonomous taxis to be almost entirely operated by AI (artificial intelligence) technology.

However, there is virtually no indication about the regulatory framework for particularly autonomous taxis. 

Taxi and private hire licensing and regulation exists primarily to protect the public.  Driverless taxis present a significant complexity in regulatory law.  For example, where a passenger is injured as a result of decisions made autonomously by a taxi, who is the legal entity responsible?  Autonomous vehicles, being purely mechanical beasts, cannot be held criminally liable.  Other examples includes the use of autonomous taxis to traffic drugs seeing as there will be no supervision.

Whilst we are in reality still some way off seeing the deployment of autonomous taxis on the UK’s roads, that reality is potentially not as far in the distant future as many may believe. 

The reality is also that autonomous taxis will not be practical everywhere, however, in the capital and other large urban areas the possibility of autonomous taxis seems to be a real possibility within a matter of years.

There is a need for the Government to consider within its current review the licensing implications of autonomous taxis and what this means for the wider taxi and private hire trade and passenger safety.

Stephen McCaffrey

Regulatory defence barrister specialising in taxi and private hire licensing law, appeals and defence.

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