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Bumpy Legal Route to Driverless Future

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany is rushing to amend its traffic laws to permit self-driving cars, in the hope of boosting its own car industry and keep up with Silicon Valley-based competitors like Tesla and Google.

  • Facts


    • German companies plan to invest billions in electric and self-driving cars over the next ten years, with Volkswagen hoping to sell 2 to 3 million electric cars per year by 2025
    • A recent fatal crash involving a Tesla self-driving car in the United States has increased public worries and legal concerns about the new technology.
    • The development of electric and self-driving cars is hampered by an absence of a legal and regulatory framework, something the German government wants to change.
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main source Reuters – Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt arrives at Chancellory in electric BMW i3 car Jan 2014 34649642
Minister Alexander Dobrindt wants to help the domestic car industry with new laws on self-driving technology. Source: Reuters

The German government hopes to rush through a new legal framework on self-driving cars, hoping to give German manufacturers a chance to play a key role in the emerging new technology.

VW, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-maker are all boosting investments to develop driverless cars as Silicon Valley-based tech firms have moved in on their turf. Tesla has a car which can drive itself, while Google has also been working on a self-driving car for a few years, and last year named the project Waymo. Apple is also interested in self-driving technology.

Over the summer, German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt proposed rules to reform road traffic laws, allowing cars to be driven by machine “for a certain time and in certain circumstances” and he provided further more details about his plans in September.

Mr. Dobrindt will review the proposed laws with interest groups and state representatives on Thursday, and may later amend them.

Automakers have already welcomed the plans, but lawmakers warned in July that a host of issues need to be clarified.

One of Germans' biggest reservations is the amount of personal data a driver would have to relinquish in order to enjoy the full benefits of hands-free driving.

The Federation of German Consumer Organisations, which defends consumer rights and will speak at the minister’s meeting, has now condemned the draft law as half-baked and said in a position paper, which Handelsblatt has obtained, the proposals left much to be desired in the way of consumer protection.

The consumer protection group, a not-for-profit mostly funded through public money, said one of the law’s biggest shortcomings was that it “largely disregarded” the interests of consumers.

“Instead of affording legal certainty for all sides in the operation of automated systems, we believe the draft law is primarily aimed at freeing manufacturers from liability and passing this onto drivers and car owners,” said the group, known by its German acronym VZBV.

The association also said that the law in its current form could have a deterrent effect and lead to a situation in which “automated driving functions are not used in Germany.”

Indeed, one of the most controversial subjects in the debate over autonomous driving is data protection. Due to their experience of totalitarianism in the Nazi era and Communist rule in the former East, Germans are famously cagey when it comes to their privacy.

One of people’s biggest reservations is the amount of personal data a driver would have to relinquish in order to enjoy the full benefits of hands-free driving.

18 p5 Automated Driving-01 self-driving cars

“Many people are worried that everything will be recorded, read out at a routine police stop and used against them,” Henning Kagermann, the former CEO of the German software giant SAP and a member of an ethics committee on autonomous driving at the German Transport Ministry, told Handelsblatt.

But Mr. Kagermann believes such fears, while understandable, are akin to putting the cart in front of the proverbial horse.

“In the current phase, I don’t think a law regulating data security is necessary. What we have to do now is test these fully automatic systems,” he told Handelsblatt.

Mr. Kagermann, who also heads the Natural Academy of Science and Engineering as well as a number of academic working groups on electromobility and autonomous driving, has spent the last year ironing out a concept for how Germany could make its traffic infrastructure networked and autonomous.

He added that the German government would be wise to leave the regulatory framework concerning autonomous driving as loose as possible so as not to hinder innovation.

“We can carry out experiments within the existing legal framework,” Mr. Kagermann said. “Once we move from the testing phase into regular application, then we have to think about what the appropriate and binding rules should be.”

He also noted that while everyone may be talking about a future in which cars drive themselves, “autonomous driving is still a long way off.”

Even as the road to a driverless future is full of legal and ethical potholes, carmakers are pressing ahead to bring the technology to market. On Thursday, Audi announced a cooperation with U.S. chipmaker Nvidia to improve a car’s artificial intelligence, a technology to aid “piloted driving,” the carmaker said in a statement.

Volkswagen, the parent company of Audi, said Thursday Nvidia would be the company’s new partner for its technology center in Silicon Valley, officially called Volkswagen Group Future Center California, to “to develop an artificial intelligence-based cockpit delivering the best digital user experience in the world.”

Audi and VW made their announcements as the companies, other carmakers and many technology firms gather in Las Vegas to attend the Consumer Electronics Show, traditionally a key industry event for electronic consumer products but now also a magnet for car makers and their suppliers.


Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Dietmar Neuerer covers domestic politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin. To contact the authors: delhaes@handelsblatt.com and neuerer@handelsblatt.com

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