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Developers Can Now Test Driverless Cars on Public Roads in Germany

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【Summary】Germany’s move to test self-driving cars is a huge win for automakers based in the region. But are the new laws lax enough to accommodate the development of mature autonomous driving systems?

Michael Cheng    May 23, 2017 7:30 AM PT
Developers Can Now Test Driverless Cars on Public Roads in Germany

Public testing of driverless cars is the next milestone that tech-savvy countries are looking to facilitate in the near future. The latest country to allow such activities is Germany. Earlier this month, local officials rolled out new laws that permits automakers from testing autonomous cars in roadways, next to human-driven vehicles.

Like other countries that recently adopted guidelines for running driverless pilot programs, operators must be behind the wheel at all times, ready to intervene during difficult maneuvers of failed executions.

Germany's move to test self-driving cars is a huge win for automakers based in the region. But are the new laws lax enough to accommodate the development of mature autonomous driving systems? Find out below.

Legal Responsibility

According to the new pilot guidelines, developers overseeing the vehicles will be allowed to take their hands off the steering wheel and other critical driving components inside the units. Additionally, they don't have to focus on avoiding obstacles in the environment. They could monitor incoming data and check their phones, while the car is in self-driving mode.

This level of freedom comes with some strict regulations and considerations. In the event the developer gets into a car accident in manual mode, he or she will hold legal responsibility for the incident. However, if the vehicle was in autonomous mode during the accident, the manufacturer will bear legal responsibility (no clarifications on what such penalties could be). Regulators will be able to prove this using a black box recorder that is required in every self-driving car participating in pilot programs.

"This means German car makers like Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, and BMW will be able to test their autonomous driving features on their home turf, without the need to go halfway around the world," said Adam Westlake from Slash Gear.

Future Updates and Implementations

The Federal German Bundesrat (Federal Council) plan to update the laws every two years to keep the guidelines relevant. Many analysts believe that the two-year timeline is too long and will cause the country to be behind in implementing future-forward standards for autonomous cars. A six-month or a one-year period would better accommodate the pace of driverless technology. Should the transportation authority stick closely to its revision timeline, the next update to the laws will be in 2019. This is exactly a year from the predicted market proliferation of self-driving cars in mass markets (2020). By 2019, automakers are expected to be making minor adjustments to their systems – not hard testing them on public roads.

It is important to consider that the guidelines failed to address security concerns surrounding data collection processes in the modern cars. Officials may roll out additional standards to ensure information is well protected during testing. Lastly, the laws do not permit the testing of SAE-L5 self-driving vehicles. Hence, the prototypes must have steering wheels and pedals.

"Typically it's the EU that stipulates a directive and member state governments that have to implement it into a respective national law," said a spokeswoman for the VDA, the German auto industry association.

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