The German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) has published a legislative proposal on the approval of completely driverless vehicles: the Autonomous Driving Act (Gesetz zum autonomen Fahren). The draft passed the federal cabinet on 10 February and is expected to be enacted without major changes this summer.
The new law substantially differs from previous reforms:
- The important 2017 amendments to Germany's Road Traffic Act (Straßenverkehrsgesetz, StVG) set rules on automated driving functions, eg lane-keeping and lane-changing systems on the highway. This 2017 reform was mainly aimed at 'normal' passenger cars with a steering wheel, which would only be controlled by the automated system in certain use cases (so-called 'dual-use vehicles').
- The 2021 draft primarily sets a framework for completely driverless ('fully autonomous') vehicles in defined operational areas. Thus, the new law will be important for the transport of goods and people on fixed routes. Although the new law will generally also apply to dual-use passenger cars, the actual scope of use cases for such vehicles will be limited.
The current regulatory framework
Since 2017, the StVG has stipulated rules for Level 3 automated vehicles. This level is referred to as 'conditional automation' by the SAE or high automation in StVG terminology. The 2017 reform also aimed to regulate vehicles at Level 4 (SAE: high automation; Germany: full automation), but StVG rules on driver attention have been criticised for being too strict for (at least advanced) Level 4 functions.
Under the current system, the vehicle has to comply with all traffic rules that are relevant to the driving task. While the system is active, the driver may perform other tasks, such as reading and typing on the vehicle’s internal communication systems, and using hand-held devices like a mobile phone (as per Germany's Road Traffic Ordinance StVO).
If the system requests the driver to take control, the driver must be able to do so immediately. If the driver does not take control immediately, the vehicle will perform a minimum-risk manoeuvre, eg stop in a way that is not dangerous to other vehicles.
It is important to note that such systems must be approved under EU Regulation (EU) 2018/858 with its references to the UN/ECE Regulations.
An important milestone in this area is the new UN/ECE Regulation on automated lane-keeping systems. These systems will be able to keep the vehicle in line on a highway at speeds of up to 60kph, but without lane changes.
The Regulation was adopted mid-2020 and will be implemented in 2021. Discussions regarding an amendment are already ongoing, for example to increase the maximum speed to 130kph and to add lane-change functions.
New legislation for 2021
The proposed Autonomous Driving Act is aimed at completely driverless vehicles but in a rather limited scope of operation. Although this is often referred to as Level 5 (‘autonomous’) it could better be characterised as Level 4 or Level 4+ given the rather strict rules on where and how to operate such vehicles.
Under the proposals, two approvals are necessary:
- the driverless vehicle itself needs a specific national operating licence (Betriebserlaubnis); and
- the operational area in which the vehicle will be allowed to drive needs approval (Genehmigung des festgelegten Betriebsbereichs).
A driver or control person in the vehicle is not necessary. Oversight and emergency manoeuvres are performed by a so-called technical supervisor (Technische Aufsicht) who may be in the vehicle but can also work remotely.
Under the new legislation, driverless vehicles can, for example, move people on fixed routes or move goods, eg between two nearby sites of a company. Early pilot projects in this area have already been operating for some time based on special test approvals, for example the Bad Birnbach driverless bus since 2017.
The new legislation’s scope for passenger cars, however, will most likely be rather limited for two reasons:
- the necessary approval of a defined operational area makes the country-wide use of a function rather difficult; and
- setting technical standards for autonomous and automated passenger cars is in the EU’s competence and laid down in Regulation (EU) 2018/858, which incorporates the UN/ECE Regulations.
However, the EU Regulation also leaves some room for exemptions, such as approvals of new technologies and national approvals of vehicles in small series.
A potential use case for passenger cars under the new German national regulation could for example be automated valet parking, which is already referred to in the draft act itself. Here, the car can be parked at the entrance of a public car park, and will then find a free spot somewhere and park itself. This can be achieved in existing car parks just based on the vehicle's sensors and driving functions, but could also be accompanied by technical equipment (connected infrastructure).
For such dual-use vehicles, it remains to be seen how well the new German law will interact with existing and upcoming EU and UN/ECE legislation.
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