Frankfurt - Tired of waiting for global regulators to act, the German government is preparing landmark legislation that could commercialise driverless vehicle technology by next summer.
If passed, it could be the first comprehensive legal framework covering both homologation and road traffic requirements for robotaxis in which the computer controls the vehicle at all times.
Germany is seizing the initiative having already waited three years for even the most rudimentary autonomous function to be approved by a United Nations standard-setting body, the UNECE, for sale in the European Union.
The hope is to have the draft approved by Germany’s lower house of parliament before it starts its summer break next year. It is at that point that passing legislation takes a backseat to campaigning for the country’s 2021 general election.
"The planned new legal framework should create the prerequisites in the current legislative period to allow for the standard operation of autonomous, driverless motorised vehicles on public roads, limited geographically to a defined environment,” the Transportation Ministry said in a statement sent to Automotive News Europe.
"Driverless vehicles should be enabled for a wide range of various applications without the need to definitively regulate any one specific use case. This flexibility allows for various forms of mobility needs to be taken into account."
The draft legislation is currently undergoing interdepartmental revisions, which is why it has not been made public yet. Any proposal would have to be passed by the entire cabinet before being sent to German members of parliament and finally to the upper house that represents the country’s 16 federal states.
"It goes beyond experimenting with prototypes, it is expressly directed to the commercialisation of autonomous transport for people and goods," said Benedikt Wolfers, who is a partner at law firm Posser Spieth Wolfers & Partners.
An expert on automotive regulations, Wolfers briefed industry executives on the plans earlier this month at an event sponsored by The Autonomous, an initiative formed by Austrian software platform provider TTTech Auto to accelerate advances in the field.
Berlin had already passed a law in 2017 allowing drivers to shift control of the vehicle to an onboard computer. Global regulators, however, had not agreed on a method for automakers to sell such a feature in key markets such as the European Union until late last month. That is when the UNECE settled on the first, rudimentary Level 3 eyes-off system..
Normally, the Brussels applies vehicle regulations devised by the Geneva-based UN agency across the EU.
No rule, no problem
Germany is taking advantage of a legislative loophole in the EU. “If you look for European legislation for vehicles without a driver, there is nothing. Zero,” he told ANE.
"As long as there are no EU-wide rules in place that would constitute what is called a harmonised area of European law, member states themselves can push ahead -- beyond just testing prototypes or approving pilot programs," he added, "and Germany wants to be the first country to draft a such a law."
This would cover the most advanced form of Level 4 "mind-off" autonomous driving, in which the vehicle would be able to steer itself in almost any circumstance within tightly defined parameters known as an Operational Design Domain.
The parameters include everything from a specified geographical area, intelligent transportation infrastructure, weather conditions, traffic and road types. No human safety driver would be seated in the vehicle in the event of a problem, as is the case in robotaxis being tested by US autonomous driving startup Argo AI.
Instead a "technical supervisor" located in a type of mission control center would resolve problems remotely, should such a Level 4 vehicle, for example, find itself in a situation that exceeds its design specifications.
Wolfers said that if Germany passes the legislation it would be one of the rare examples of regulation leading rather than lagging technology.
Few companies researching autonomous vehicles are far enough in their development to launch a driverless vehicle fleet for commercial purposes.
Alphabet's autonomous vehicle subsidiary, Waymo, was the first and remains the only provider to offer such a service, but it only operates in the U.S. city of Phoenix, Arizona. Rivals such as Uber, Tesla, Nvidia and Argo AI are all working on advanced autonomous architectures.
Even if the German legislation passes, Wolfers does not expect robotaxi fleets to suddenly launch in the country.
“Will it happen soon? Probably not, but not due to a lack of regulation,” he said, adding that if and when Brussels introduces its own EU-wide law, Germany could withdraw its legislation.
‘Open to any provider’
Previously, automakers including Volkswagen had complained that existing rules only allow for small pilot programs such as the one it started last year in Hamburg. Only by commercialising robotaxi fleets could such a service become financially viable, VW said. That could soon change.
"Germany is making a great step signalling both to the European Union as well as the rest of the world the common excuse that regulators are holding up viable business models is no longer valid," said Ricky Hudi, a former executive vice president for electronics development at Audi and chairman on The Autonomous. "This represents a huge opportunity to drive innovation in the industry and it’s not geared just to the German car makers: it’s open to any provider around the world."