Germany is rewriting its traffic laws to include autonomous cars. Among the primary rules in its draft legislation is that these cars will still require a steering wheel and that a human must still sit behind it.
Accordingly, drivers will not be able to rely ‘blindfold’ on the driving system, but must remain ready to intervene. In other words, the driver may read, write or watch TV to a certain extent, but napping will be prohibited. The new law will shift the existing liability in case of an accident: Until now, the driver’s inattention at any given point in time triggers his liability; in the future, during the auto-pilot mode, the driver’s possible liability will focus on failing to react to the ‘wake-up signal’. This is being taken by some as a failure—a backward-thinking move that will stifle the progress of self-driving cars. But, in fact, it could be the opposite.
Germany is home to some of the world’s largest car companies, including Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW, and the government wants the industry to become a global player in the market for self-driving vehicles. Back in April, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel told the car industry that it should draw up a wishlist for Berlin, ideally with a timetable, in order to help it test and develop autonomous cars. She also said autonomous vehicles are not a disputed topic in the coalition, meaning that all ruling parties are behind the technology. The new legislation, as per Germany’s transport ministry, will require a driver, and cars will have to carry a ‘black box’ recorder “that records when the autopilot system was active, when the driver drove, and when the system requested that the driver take over”. Similar to aircraft, the black box will record journey data in order to evaluate whether the driver has reacted late or whether the system has failed.
If passed, experts say, these regulations could provide some of the clearest guidelines for autonomous cars in any major world economy.
In the US, California is perhaps the most advanced state when it comes to testing autonomous cars, but even there the law is a confused mess, including certification requirements from testing bodies that don’t yet exist. Germany, on the other hand, is moving fast and decisively. The draft laws, along with Merkel’s inclusion of the industry, show exactly how this kind of thing always works in Germany: commercial exploitation is encouraged, but the government keeps a leash on things for the purposes of safety and to safeguard the public interest. And while some argue that the proposed rules are overly cautious, Germany’s decisive push to clear autonomous car regulations could give the country an advantage in the race to become the global leader in developing the technology. Companies around the globe are working on prototypes for self-driving vehicles, but such cars are not expected to be available in the mass market before 2020.