The national Parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany decided on Thursday to change an existing traffic law that had prohibited vehicles from being engaged in autonomous mode. Drawing on votes from both the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Christian Democratic Union (CSU), the Bundestag has agreed to allow fully autonomous driving vehicles to travel on Germany’s streets. The (translated) law reads, in part,
“During vehicle driving, the driver may turn away from traffic and vehicle control by means of highly automated or fully automated driving function… [but must] immediately [assume control] if he recognizes that the conditions for the intended use of the highly or fully automated driving functions no longer exist… even if he does not control the vehicle in the context of the intended use of this function.”
The law provides a balance between driver responsibility in the event of traffic incident and the ability of the the driver to release control of the vehicle to a control system, depending on situation and duration. The driver must retain the capacity to reassume control as well as to deactivate the control system. All vehicles with autonomous driving systems would have a “black box” data storage system, which would assist in determining fault in the event of an accident.
The new German law supersedes the 1968 “Vienna Convention on Road Traffic,” which specified that human drivers must have full control over their vehicle at any time. Of course, at that time of that law’s implementation, autonomous vehicles had not yet been introduced.
Tensions were high immediately preceding the vote, according to Germany’s golem.de newspaper, which described the level of autonomy to be permitted as “highly automated and fully automatic vehicles.” SPD deputy Kirsten Lühmann accusing the body of assigning drivers the roles of “experimental rabbits for new technology.” Stephan Kühn, the Green party deputy, also disagreed with the extent of the law. “It is not enough just to formulate in the justification of the legal text what the driver is allowed to do without worry while the computer is driving the car. This must be re-written into the law itself.”
The SPD defended the amendments as sound and timely.
German Federal Minister of Transport Alexander Dobrindt (CSU) had offered draft legislation for the new law in February, but it received violent criticism and underwent significant revision, particularly around data protection regulations. At the beginning of this week’s debate, he envisioned Germany as having “the most modern road traffic law in the world.” Dobrindt has rationalized the law as providing value added software innovation that could be homegrown in Germany and Europe. With the new systems, he said, will come increased traffic safety, fewer traffic jams, and reduced environmental pollution [emphasis added].
Germany is a forerunner for European autonomous driving, with some sections of public highways already designated as live testing zones. The Institute for the German Economy calculates that Germany has registered 58% of all global patents in autonomous driving since 2010.
The approved revision states that the owner of the car is still liable for actions taken while under autonomous mode, as prescribed by section 7 of the Road Traffic Act (Hazard Liability). Specific German autonomous driving regulations have not yet been established; those will come alongside international regulations and definitions and will likely change, too, as technological development in autonomous driving continues to progress. Like so many in the auto industry today, German engineers, scientists, and regulators are in a race to figure out the details of how autonomous cars will function so that they can be market ready by the early 2020’s.
Of course, Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, has stated that his company’s electric vehicles will have autonomous capability by the second half of 2017. The Society of Automotive Engineers has identified different levels of autonomy, ranging from 0 to Level 5, with Level 5 signifying that a vehicle can drive itself at all times under all conditions and need no input from a human. Level 4 autonomy refers to a vehicle that can be autonomous almost all the time, within determined parameters, as seems to be outlined by the Bundestag.
Interestingly, according to Musk’s statements, Teslas may soon be able to approach Level 4. That would make Tesla R&D far ahead of any German innovation currently underway.
With a bicameral parliament, Germany has two chambers: the Bundestag (lower house) and the Bundesrat (Federal Council or upper house). Both chambers can initiate legislation, and most bills must be approved by both chambers, as well as the executive branch, before becoming law. Now that the autonomous driving legislation has been approved by the Bundestag, it will go before the Federal Council. Coalition forces feel confident that this week’s modifications to Dobrindt’s original draft proposal are sufficient to pass through the Bundestrat.
Bitkom CEO Bernhard Rohleder was excited about the law, saying, “The Bundestag has cleared the way for the Automnation Deutschland to be the world leader in autonomous driving.” He acknowledged that changes will occur around liability rules or the use of data. “But we must not make the mistake of trying to settle everything down to the end in a long-term debate, then other countries will create facts and we will have the opportunity to use this technology.”
The first production vehicles equipped with autonomous driving features will be introduced to Germany sometime in 2017. “We can also be innovative in the legal framework and do not need to hide from the Silicon Valley ,” said Ulrich Lange (CSU), a CSU member, argued during the final moments of debate.