• Autonomous driving: the legal framework.

  • Autonomous driving: the legal framework.

    • 21. April 2016
    • Autonomous Driving
    • Illustration: Realgestalt
    • Text: Rüdiger Abele

    Before autonomous driving becomes reality some questions have to be answered – including those related to the legal framework. We take a look into the future.

    Autonomous driving has become a hot topic in the world of mobility. And Mercedes-Benz is developing the technologies that are needed to make it a reality. The F 015 Luxury in Motion research vehicle, for example, has shown what the self-driving cars of tomorrow might look like. And even now the new E-Class offers a wide range of assistance systems and partial automated functions – offering a glimpse of the future in the present day.

    Autonomous driving is inextricably linked with the future of mobility. It offers many advantages: greater convenience, less stress, lower fuel consumption and the potential to further improve road safety. But as well as the technological aspects, there are also certain legal questions that need to be answered for it to become reality.

    Autonomous or automated – this is the fundamental legal distinction between the two strands of the current development. Today’s assistance systems and partial automated systems – such as the new E-Class’s Stop&Go Pilot and Active Lane Change Assist – provide support for drivers, but they do not replace them. Autonomous systems in the cars of tomorrow will go one step further: the driver will become a passenger, or there won’t even be a driver anymore.

    Renata Jungo Brüngger, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG responsible for Integrity and Legal Affairs

    Technical change and legal development

    Important questions are setting the agenda for the legal framework that governs autonomous driving. What needs to be done in legal terms to make autonomous driving possible? “The legal framework that applies to the current driver assistance systems also forms a reasonable basis for the next stages of development ” says Renata Jungo Brüngger, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG responsible for Integrity and Legal Affairs. ” However, changes need to be made to the technical regulations as well as in view of the future of autonomous driving.”

    In March 2016 an amendment of the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic (see info box) regarding driver behaviour entered into force. This international treaty is relevant for automated and autonomous systems because it stipulates the extent to which drivers must be in control of their vehicles. According to this latest amendment, systems are now deemed to be controllable if the driver can switch them off or override them. Future functions for highly automated driving that still require a driver also meet this criterion.

    Driverless cars, on the other hand, are still not permitted because even the amended treaty stipulates the need for a driver. For this reason a working group within the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) is already elaborating on a further update to the Vienna Convention to enable the use of driverless systems in future.

    A virtual zebra crossing for pedestrians

    To pave the way for automated and autonomous systems, changes also need to be made to the regulations on the admission of motor vehicles to traffic. For example, self-driving cars may well feature innovations that enable the vehicle to ‘communicate’ with its environment: the Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion research car projects a virtual zebra crossing on the road to make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street. In order for this type of light functionality to feature in a series production vehicle, however, the UN regulations concerning vehicle lighting need to be revised accordingly.

    Established liability model also applies to automated driving

    If a self-driving car is involved in an accident, who is liable? In Germany and many other countries, the legal situation is clear because there is a liability model based on three pillars: driver, owner and manufacturer. In the case of current partial automated systems the driver remains responsible. The systems support the driver, but he must still control the vehicle and intervene in case of an emergency. If the driver causes an accident, he or she is liable for the resulting damage, along with the owner of the vehicle. Manufacturers are responsible for damages which flow from product defects.

    This shared combination of liability among the driver, owner and manufacturer offers a balanced distribution of risks, protects victims and has proven itself in practice. The liability model also provides a reasonable basis for new systems and for the next stages of automated driving. Autonomous driving has the potential to further improve road safety and traffic flow, and can therefore likely reduce the total number of damage and liability cases.

    A holistic look into the future

    Daimler takes a close look at every aspect of autonomous driving. Beyond the technical issues, an interdisciplinary steering committee deals with its legal, ethical and data protection questions. This steering committee includes developers and engineers as well as a team of legal experts specializing in autonomous driving. They are joined by Daimler experts on data protection and compliance, as well as specialists from various fields including strategy, politics and communications. This ensures a confluence of different perspectives and areas of expertise already at an early stage of product development.

    “Car manufacturers by themselves cannot answer all of the unresolved questions related to autonomous driving, including the ethical ones. These questions must be addressed in a wider debate” says Renata Jungo Brüngger.  Daimler initiated this debate, and has been promoting it ever since through various measures. In addition to its participation in various bodies and associations, Daimler has been supporting the scientific research on autonomous driving as part of the “Villa Ladenburg” project since 2012. Last year, researchers published their white book to contribute to the discussion in the fields of industry, politics and research. Daimler held a symposium on “Autonomous Driving, Law and Ethics” in September 2015. The dialogue with stakeholders was continued in November as part of the Sustainability Dialogue 2015. This autumn, Daimler will once again make autonomous driving one of the main subjects of its Sustainability Dialogue. The event will be held in Stuttgart on November 9th and 10th, and will bring together representatives of industry with NGOs, politicians and scientists.

    Vienna Convention on Road Traffic

    Seventy-two countries agree on road traffic regulations

    The Vienna Convention on Road Traffic is a treaty under the umbrella of the United Nations that forms the basis for national road traffic regulations. Seventy-two countries have ratified the convention and in doing so have undertaken to align their own laws with its stipulations. The convention was drawn up by a UN conference in Vienna in autumn 1968. One of the stipulations is that the driver must control his vehicle at all times. The latest amendment, which deems systems to be controllable if the driver can override or switch them off at any time, came into force on March 23, 2016.