Navigating the Future: Germany's Autonomous Driving Act

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The Autonomous Driving Act took effect in Germany on July 28, 2021, introducing significant and comprehensive amendments to the German Road Traffic Law. Chief among these are the detailed criteria for vehicles equipped with autonomous driving capabilities, which adhere to the SAE-Level 4 classification as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). The Act now permits the operation of autonomous vehicles without a driver physically present, but only within designated areas under “technical supervision.” This refers to a human backup who remotely monitors the vehicles and can intervene during critical situations. Consequently, Germany has assumed a pioneering and leading role in establishing the technical requirements necessary for autonomous vehicles to operate and defining the fundamental responsibilities of the involved parties during operation. Alongside these changes, a new centralized approval process for autonomous vehicles has been implemented under the supervision of Germany’s Federal Motor Transport Authority, which includes new specifications for data transfer.

The Autonomous Driving Act is not Germany’s first legislation addressing autonomous vehicles. In 2017, legal provisions were incorporated into the Road Traffic Law that facilitated the approval of vehicles with “highly or fully automated driving functions,” specifically pertaining to SAE-Level 3 vehicles. The latest amendment to the law, however, has paved the way for completely driverless vehicle operation. In contrast, the previous amendment only permitted driver assistance features, such as lane-keeping systems on highways, where drivers were required to be ready to resume control upon notification.

What is expected to change with the new Autonomous Driving Act?

Public transport in Germany is expected to be among the first beneficiaries of the new Autonomous Driving Act, as the legislation primarily aims to facilitate new mobility services such as (supplementary) autonomous shuttle services, robo-taxis, and other public transport modes. German authorities hope that implementing the Autonomous Driving Act will contribute to increased traffic safety by minimizing human error, which accounts for over 80% of accidents, through the expanded integration of autonomous vehicles on German roads. Additionally, policymakers in Germany foresee positive environmental impacts, such as reduced CO2 emissions, resulting from the heightened adoption of autonomous vehicles due to increased efficiency in passenger transportation. For instance, CO2 emissions can be decreased by providing passenger transport only upon request. Furthermore, the introduction of autonomous vehicles implies a reduced need for private vehicles in rural areas and potentially fewer individual trips. By boosting the frequency of trips, policymakers plan to utilize autonomous shuttles to enhance connectivity between cities, suburban areas, and rural regions, which have traditionally been inadequately served by public transport. Offering on-demand public transportation is significantly more cost-effective than providing inflexible services with lower demand during off-peak hours. Labor costs can also be reduced by eliminating the need for a driver and having a single technical supervisor monitor multiple vehicles.

Addressing Safety Concerns in the Autonomous Driving Act

According to the law, a vehicle with autonomous driving functions is any vehicle that has the necessary technical capacity to “perform the driving task independently within a defined operating area without a person driving the vehicle.” This definition ensures that autonomous vehicles will not be universally approved for public road traffic initially but will only be permitted within specific areas deemed suitable for implementing this novel technology. A defined operating area may encompass any public roadway; however, due to safety considerations, the integration of autonomous vehicles will primarily occur in less complex environments such as highways and suburban areas, where fewer road users and objects (e.g., street signs, traffic lights) with which the vehicle needs to interact.

In addition to meeting technical requirements, vehicles with autonomous driving capabilities must obtain an operating permit and approval for participation in public road traffic, similar to other vehicles. With respect to the dilemma situation, wherein an autonomous vehicle must “choose” which law to violate, legislators have determined that the vehicle should be programmed to select the option associated with the lowest risk of harm, prioritizing the protection of human life above all else. When alternatives to endangering human life are available, no further distinctions should be made based on personal characteristics such as age or disabilities.

The new regulations also accommodate the possibility of retroactively activating disabled driving functions that were installed in the vehicle but not yet legally permissible at the time of their deployment. Once their usage is legalized, these functions can be enabled through software updates.

What does the law require in terms of human supervision of AVs?

The updated legal framework mandates that autonomous vehicles maintain a continuous and stable radio connection with a person who can deactivate the vehicle during operation and remotely execute driving maneuvers, referred to as “technical supervision.” Given the broad responsibilities of the technical supervisor in ensuring safety, the law imposes stringent qualification standards for individuals in this role. If complications arise during an autonomous vehicle’s operation and it enters a “minimal-risk state,” the technical supervisor must investigate the cause and evaluate the associated risk. The vehicle then offers the technical supervisor various solutions to resolve the situation. Once the technical supervisor selects an option and resolves the issue, they are permitted to dismiss the “minimal risk state.” If an immediate repair is not possible for a malfunction, the technical supervisor assumes control of the vehicle. In emergencies, the autonomous vehicle contacts the technical supervisor and presents multiple courses of action.

The wording of the law, however, does not fully clarify the supervision ratio, i.e. number of vehicles per person, that must be maintained by the technical supervision and the autonomous vehicle. Experts currently suggest that a one-to-one ratio may be necessary to fulfill all responsibilities outlined in the new regulations. In the long term, for the automation of transport services to be economically viable, a single individual will likely need to monitor multiple vehicles simultaneously.

Who bears responsibility for the operation of an autonomous vehicle?

Under German law, responsibility for the operation of a vehicle with autonomous driving functions is shared between the vehicle’s owner and its manufacturer. The owner is responsible for maintaining the vehicle’s safety and upkeep, while the manufacturer must ensure the security, integrity, and functionality of the vehicle’s electronic and digital architecture, which may be vulnerable to cyberattacks. Furthermore, the manufacturer is tasked with providing training for individuals involved in operating the vehicle.

Data Processing Regulations in the Autonomous Driving Act

A substantial portion of the amendment to the law focuses on data processing regulations, which are crucial for the operability of autonomous vehicles. Processing vast amounts of data enables autonomous vehicles to not only “know” where and when they need to go, but also predict the behavior of other road users, allowing them to respond appropriately to hazardous situations and prevent accidents.

As a result, the owner of an autonomous vehicle is required to store an immense volume of data, encompassing all information generated during the vehicle’s operation, such as position data, frequency and times of use, environmental and weather conditions, as well as speed and vehicle acceleration.

The law permits the Federal Motor Transport Authority to access this data to ensure the safe operation of autonomous vehicles. The law specifically applies to transport companies and mobility service providers (users of autonomous vehicles are not monitored or identifiable), thereby preserving privacy. The allowance for data collection, along with the prohibition of private ownership of autonomous vehicles and the implementation of technical supervision, stems from strict legal requirements aimed at guaranteeing the safe integration of autonomous shuttles into public transport. In line with this rationale, the law also allows research institutes to use collected data for scientific purposes.

When will autonomous vehicles become operational in Germany?

To date, no transportation or private mobility company in Germany has deployed highly automated vehicles on public roads. Despite over 100 billion EUR invested worldwide in this new technology between 2010 and 2021, there is still a shortage of suitable vehicles equipped with the necessary software and sensor technology to take the leap forward.

Thus far, the German Federal Motor Transport Authority has granted only one permit for an automatic lane-keeping system (SAE-Level 3) to a major German car manufacturer. A first large mobility provider, which already offers on-demand services with a driver, is scheduled to begin offering an autonomous shuttle service in the German state of Hesse in the near future. However, a safety driver will initially be on board until the technology proves its reliability. Moreover, the Federal Ministry of Transport has established a funding guideline for autonomous and connected driving, offering financial support for new research projects focused on integrating autonomous on-demand services into public transport. Upon completion of these projects, the guideline stipulates that a minimum of three autonomous vehicles (SAE-Level 4) from each project must be operational after 2025.

By now it has become clear that the initial euphoria from politics and industry has somewhat subsided, moderating expectations regarding the deployment process of autonomous vehicles, and that cases of full implementation can only be expected in a few years’ time.

What is the status of autonomous vehicles legislation in other countries?

Of all the countries at the cusp of introducing autonomous vehicles and grappling with concomitant legislative questions, German lawmakers are playing a trailblazing role. In the US, autonomous vehicles have been tested on public roads for years, but no federal regulations have been established yet. Instead, individual states are attempting to implement minimum testing requirements, competing with one another to become the first to successfully integrate autonomous driving into daily life. In March 2022, Japan followed Germany’s lead, amending its Road Traffic Law to permit self-driving vehicles to transport elderly people in rural areas with sparse populations. The responsibility for monitoring driverless functionality lies with the operating company, which is completely remote. If an accident or issue occurs, the company is responsible for dispatching personnel to resolve it on-site. In China, a potentially large market for autonomous driving, there were still no national laws in place as of 2022. However, progress is being made in major cities like Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, where autonomous taxi testing is underway and considerable funding is being invested in intelligent infrastructure.

The chronology of legislation around the world suggests that Germany’s autonomous driving law has served as a template for other countries, such as Japan and France. However, it is evident that the German regulation represents only an early step in a lengthy process. In the explanatory memorandum of the Autonomous Driving Act, the German Federal Ministry of Transport has emphasized that internationally harmonized regulations will be crucial for achieving cross-border mobility for autonomous vehicles. Collaborative efforts like these will help propel the autonomous mobility revolution until driverless travel transcends current technological and conceptual boundaries.

Summary and Outlook

Germany’s Autonomous Driving Act is a pioneering legal framework for the operation of self-driving cars. This comprehensive legislation amends the German Road Traffic Law, permitting SAE-Level 4 autonomous vehicles to operate within designated areas under “technical supervision.” With the introduction of the Act, Germany has taken a leading role in establishing technical requirements and defining responsibilities for parties involved in the operation of autonomous vehicles. Although no transportation or private mobility company in Germany has yet deployed highly automated vehicles, the country has laid the groundwork for their eventual integration. Meanwhile, the German Autonomous Driving Act has served as a model for other countries, such as Japan and France, paving the way to move the autonomous mobility revolution closer to realizing the full potential of driverless travel.

The opinions expressed in this text are solely that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) and/or its partners.

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