Open road for self-driving cars

The much-discussed amend­ment to Germany’s Road Traf­fic Act has cle­ared its final hurd­le and has now been enac­ted into law (PDF only in Ger­man). Fede­ral Trans­por­ta­ti­on Minis­ter Scheu­er pro­no­un­ced eupho­ri­cal­ly that “the way is now clear for self-driving vehic­les to take to the road like any other car: we are the first coun­try in the world to do so. We are set­ting inter­na­tio­nal stan­dards and Ger­ma­ny is now num­ber one in this area.” The amend­ment will ser­ve as a foun­da­ti­on and as a tran­si­tio­nal solu­ti­on until har­mo­ni­zed regu­la­ti­ons are adopted at the inter­na­tio­nal level.

Rou­ti­ne ope­ra­ti­on pos­si­ble in defi­ned ope­ra­ting areas

Vehic­les with auto­no­mous dri­ving func­tions, i.e. tho­se which can ope­ra­te on their own wit­hout a dri­ver, may be used in defi­ned ope­ra­ting are­as in public road traf­fic pro­vi­ded that they meet cer­tain (par­ti­cu­lar­ly tech­ni­cal) requi­re­ments. The term “ope­ra­ting area” is deli­bera­te­ly abs­tract. Accor­ding to the legis­la­ti­ve intent for the law (PF in Ger­man),  the gene­ral inten­ti­on was to allow self-driving vehic­les in a wide ran­ge of ope­ra­ting are­as, with due regard for local con­di­ti­ons. Ope­ra­ting are­as are defi­ned by the vehic­le owner, but are sub­ject to appr­oval by the com­pe­tent aut­ho­ri­ty in accordance with sta­te law. Pos­si­ble ope­ra­ting are­as include use in public trans­por­ta­ti­on, ser­vice and sup­p­ly, and logistics.

Level 4 auto­ma­ti­on requi­res a tech­ni­cal  monitor

The key ele­ments of the amend­ment to the Road Traf­fic Act are the tech­ni­cal rules for the design, qua­li­ty and equip­ment of vehic­les with auto­no­mous dri­ving func­tions which con­form to Level 4 auto­ma­ti­on (ful­ly auto­ma­tic dri­ving). The­se vehic­les dri­ve on its own, with no dri­ver stee­ring and wit­hout con­stant super­vi­si­on by a tech­ni­cal moni­tor. The tech­ni­cal moni­tor had to be rein­tro­du­ced in order to bring the law into con­for­mance with inter­na­tio­nal regu­la­ti­ons. This “tech­ni­cal moni­tor” is a natu­ral per­son who is respon­si­ble for remo­te­ly deac­ti­vat­ing vehic­les with self-driving capa­bi­li­ty in any indi­vi­du­al case, or for pla­cing the vehic­le in a con­di­ti­on of “mini­mal risk.”

Details need to be specified

Har­mo­ni­zed rules have yet to be adopted for auto­no­mous dri­ving func­tions, so that type appr­oval can­not be issued for such vehic­les. While the legal frame­work at the EU and UNECE level is still in the pro­cess of deve­lo­p­ment, the new § 1j of the Road Traf­fic Act aut­ho­ri­zes the govern­ment to issue Ordi­nan­ces in this regard. In other words, Ger­ma­ny will go its own way for the time being and the pre­cise for­mu­la­ti­on and key con­tent of the tech­ni­cal requi­re­ments for vehic­les and their appr­oval and use, as well as requi­re­ments for users and aspects rela­ting to data pro­tec­tion and cyber­se­cu­ri­ty (we were invol­ved), as well as lia­bi­li­ty ques­ti­ons, will be defi­ned in an Ordi­nan­ce (the “Ordi­nan­ce on the Appr­oval and Ope­ra­ti­on of Auto­no­mous Vehic­les”). It remains to be seen whe­ther the adop­ti­on of the­se spe­ci­fic rules will pro­ve hel­pful: whe­ther Ger­ma­ny will actual­ly beco­me “num­ber one” in auto­no­mous dri­ving will lar­ge­ly depend on the­se details.


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