The German government is drafting landmark legislation that could commercialize driverless vehicle technology.
If passed, it could be the first comprehensive legal framework comprising both homologation and road traffic requirements for robotaxis in which the computer controls the vehicle at all times.
Germany is seizing the initiative, having already waited three years for even the most rudimentary autonomous function to be approved by a United Nations standard-setting body, the UNECE, for sale in the European Union.
The hope is to have the draft approved by Germany’s lower house of parliament before it starts its summer break next year. It is at that point that passing legislation takes a backseat to campaign for the country’s 2021 general election.
“The planned new legal framework should create the prerequisites in the current legislative period to allow for the standard operation of autonomous, driverless motorized vehicles on public roads, limited geographically to a defined environment,” the Transportation Ministry said in a statement.
“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.”
The draft legislation is currently undergoing interdepartmental revisions, which is why it has not been made public yet.
Any proposal would have to be passed by the entire cabinet before being sent to German members of parliament and finally to the upper house that represents the country’s 16 federal states.
“It goes beyond experimenting with prototypes, it is expressly directed to the commercialization of autonomous transport for people and goods,” said Benedikt Wolfers, who is a partner at law firm Posser Spieth Wolfers & Partners.
An expert on automotive regulations, Wolfers briefed industry executives on the plans earlier this month at an event sponsored by The Autonomous, an initiative formed by Austrian software platform provider TTTech Auto to accelerate advances in the field.
Berlin had already passed a law in 2017 allowing drivers to shift control of the vehicle to an onboard computer.
Global regulators, however, had not agreed on a method for automakers to sell such a feature in key markets such as the European Union until late last month. That is when the UNECE settled on the first, rudimentary Level 3 eyes-off system..
Normally, Brussels applies vehicle regulations devised by the Geneva-based UN agency across the EU.
“As long as there are no EU-wide rules in place that would constitute what is called a harmonized area of European law, member states themselves can push ahead,” attorney Benedikt Wolfers said. “Germany wants to be the first country to draft a such a law.”
Alphabet’s autonomous vehicle subsidiary, Waymo, was the first and remains the only provider to offer such a service, but it only operates in the U.S. city of Phoenix, Arizona.
Rivals such as Uber, Tesla, Nvidia and Argo AI are all working on advanced autonomous architectures.
Previously, automakers including Volkswagen had complained that existing rules only allow for small pilot programs such as the one it started last year in Hamburg.
Only by commercializing robotaxi fleets could such a service become financially viable, VW said. That could soon change.
“Germany is making a great step signaling both to the European Union as well as the rest of the world the common excuse that regulators are holding up viable business models is no longer valid,” said Ricky Hudi, a former executive vice president for electronics development at Audi and chairman on The Autonomous.