Germany is rewriting its traffic laws to include autonomous cars. The headline part of its draft legislation is that these cars will still require a steering wheel and that a human must still sit behind it. 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.
Back in April, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel told the car industry that it should draw up a wish-list for Berlin, ideally with a timetable, in order to help it test and develop autonomous cars. She also said that autonomous vehicles are "not a disputed topic in the coalition," meaning that all ruling parties are behind the technology.
The new legislation, the Germany’s transport ministry told Reuters, 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."
In the U.S., 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.
International law firm Bird & Bird has further details of the as-yet-unpublished draft legislation. The biggest change is that a driver can legally transfer both attention and responsibility to the car. In case of a crash, the driver will not be liable due to inattention, as they are now (checking a phone, or playing the trumpet). Instead, they will pass responsibility to the car, and their liability will be triggered if they fail to respond to the car’s "wake-up" signal. "In other words, the driver may read, write, or watch TV to a certain extent, but having a nap will remain prohibited," writes Bird & Bird partner Alexander Duisberg.
Cars will also carry black-box recorders, like in planes, and these will be used to see if a driver did in fact fail to react. But if the driver did react, or if the car is found to be at fault, the driver is off the hook: "Whenever evidence is had that the manufacturer of the system is responsible for the accident, [it] will be liable without limitation," says Duisberg.
According to Duisberg, there is some debate inside the government regarding the proposals. "Recent discussions indicate that the Ministry of Justice is yet reluctant to set new rules at all, arguing that a human should at any time retain control over the car, rather than the machine."
Germany may enjoy an excess of form-filling bureaucracy, but it is also pragmatic, and pretty good at balancing the needs of its manufacturing industry (one of the biggest in the world) with the needs of the people. And pushing the car industry to become a world-leader in autonomous cars, while making sure they’re safe, is a pretty clear example of this.
Also, the pro-autonomous-car complainers forget one thing. If Germany takes the lead in autonomous cars, or at least surges ahead because of this enabling legislation, it will hasten the time when cars are safe enough to be built without steering wheels. And then, perhaps Germany will be ready to make a few more changes to its laws.
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