Autonomous Vehicles Coming to Germany’s Autobahn

Article By : Junko Yoshida

Germany is angling to leapfrog the world with legislation – currently being drafted – to permit self-driving vehicles as a regular option on the road...

Germany is angling to leapfrog the world with legislation to permit self-driving vehicles on the road. If you believe that Europe, unlike the United States, has been late to the autonomous vehicle (AV) party, it’s time to think again. Germany is currently drafting the proposed regulations.

Given that AV testing is currently very restrictive in Germany, most global automakers choose the United States or China as testbeds for this work. Being first with a rigorous regulatory framework covering AVs could entice automakers to move operations from the US or China to Germany.

Further, regulations, once put in place, would also give confidence to carmakers that AV development wouldn’t be stuck in a state of science projects forever. Of course, the places where companies congregate sometimes become technology hubs; Germany certainly hopes that will happen with AVs.

Don’t be surprised if this maneuver succeeds. Remember that the building of the autobahn launched the global era of the superhighway.

Merkel meets heads of German automakers
According to local reports, German Chancellor Angela Merkel Tuesday met with German car industry leaders. In a two-hour video conference, Merkel agreed that “Germany must take the lead in the development of self-driving cars.”

According to Automotive News, the German government also pledged to support new technologies such as artificial intelligence and cloud computing, both of which are necessary for AV development. The Chancellor, however, did not give in to calls for more state aid to a German automotive industry infected by Covid-19-related plummeting sales.

Berlin’s commitment to self-driving cars might not have been the main reason that the heads of BMW, Daimler and the Volkswagen Group met with Merkel in the video conference. Nonetheless, the eagerness of German regulators to expedite regulations for self-driving cars is a key for German automakers to ride the fast lane toward autonomy –– on a road less traveled by other countries.

Egil Juliussen, an automotive industry analyst who writes the “Egil’s Eye” column in EE Times, told us, “AV regulations need to be done as soon as possible,” if automakers are serious about getting into the commercial business of self-driving vehicles.

Germany’s ambition to “pioneer” development of self-driving cars appears to have been percolating on the back burner for a while.

Given that “autonomous vehicles (AVs) and mobility as a service (MaaS) are such disruptive technologies,” Juliussen said, Germany’s move to seize the early lead in the AV legislation “can change the balance of power” in the global market. AV regulation is a “the first step” that would allow German automakers to retain a strong leadership in AV development, he noted.

It is ironic, however, that carmakers in Germany are not known for home-grown technologies either on the AV software stack or hardware platforms. Many carmakers including Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and BMW are heavily dependent on AV software stacks developed by US companies and on chip solutions pioneered by, notably, Intel/Mobileye and Nvidia.

But official rules, presumably, would enable Germany to “bring AV testing back” to German soil, said Juliussen. This, in turn, will spur development of infrastructure in Germany to support AVs, he added.

Some industry observers, however, remain skeptical of the media reports from Germany. For example, Colin Barnden, lead analyst at Semicast Research, who writes “Seriously Skeptical” column on EE Times, wonders if something might have been lost in translation. Given “self-driving anything doesn’t work, any time I hear lawmakers and politicians trying to move things along, I am suspicious.” He said, “There’s something about these articles that doesn’t feel right to me.”

Pitfalls of AV legislation
Germany’s potentially liberating AV legislation, however, has its pitfalls.

The toughest is the issue of a driver’s license. With Level 4 AVs, humans are no longer driving, stressed Juliussen. Regulators must figure out how to test an AV and issue a driver’s license to the software used in the car.

How do you take an ID photo of an algorithm? And perhaps more importantly, how do you prove that the AV driver [who is not a human but software] is 16-years old?

Last year, Phil Koopman, CTO of Edge Case Reseach, said, “In my mind, the driver’s test has three big pieces.” One is a written test to see if you know all the rules of the road. Another is the road test. “Certainly, it makes sense to see if these vehicles can do the basic things.” Koopman added, “But the problem is that it [a road test] doesn’t prove it’s safe. Because the third piece [required in obtaining a driver’s license] is a birth certificate to prove you are 16 years old and human, or whatever the local age is.” In other words, the question here is if an AV model have the same basic “common sense” that a16-year-old is expected to possess when he or she gets behind the wheel alone and hits the road.

Autonomous regulation in the United States
Safety regulators in every country must oversee a host of other complications, said Juliussen, that entail AV use, enforcing AV safety and ensuring AV design safety.  The United States, in particular, faces an uphill struggle to formulate effective AV regulations from its existing dearth of standards.

Click the image to enlarge. (Source: Egil Juliussen)

Given the US car industry’s aversion to regulation, carmakers’ adamant preference for “self-certification,” and the government’s historic laissez-faire approach to safety enforcement, the US could — despite its lead in the AV technology — end as one of the last nations to start up its commercial AV business.

Automotive News Europe quoted a statement from the Transportation Ministry in Germany saying: “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.”

In other words, although there are many different AV applications, it appears that German regulators are looking to create blanket coverage of self-driving vehicles, instead of taking an application-by-application approach to AV regulation. A key to writing good rules, suggested Juliusen, is to keep them simple and flexible, inserting the stipulation to revisit the regulations every three to five years, tracing the rapid advances in AV technology.

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