Regulating Autonomous Vehicles: Obstacles or encouragement?

In light of Uber’s recent fatal accident involving its self-driving car in Arizona, calls for the increased regulation of autonomous vehicles have grown louder. Similar calls were made in 2016, when Tesla’s self-driving Model S confused a white truck for the bright sky, thus ramming into the truck and killing the driver of the Model S. Yet while autonomous vehicles are still believed to be safer than their human-driven counterparts, regulations of different magnitudes reach across the EU, US, and beyond. Such regulations aim to strike a balance between protecting citizens from potential malfunctions while encouraging the technology’s positively disruptive development that is expected to result in increased mobility for private and public stakeholders alike. This article explores the different measures being taken across, primarily, the EU and US, that seek to foster a smooth transition into autonomous driving, both in the commercial and private spheres.

Autonomous Driving: Testing 1,2,3

“Imagine, on our roads, trucks platooning with big signs saying ‘Europe on the move,’” announced Roberto Vavassori, present of the European automotive suppliers association, CLEPA. “It would be a sign that EU legislation is there to improve quality of life for our people,” he stated.

As such, the idea of autonomous driving has been welcomed with open arms across Europe. National leaders have signed an agreement in Rome that not only allows cross-border tests and experiments with self-driving vehicles but further establishes a single contact point in each country to foster communication and speedy approval.

While European countries have allowed for private and public testing of autonomous vehicles, restrictions have been lifted at a slower pace than that of the US – which may partially explain the fatalities that have taken place on US grounds in recent years. Nonetheless, European companies such as Daimler are capitalizing the US’s many testing facilities, as states such as Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, and Michigan have funded the establishment of test sites. Even countries with considerably higher population density, such as Singapore, are opening testing facilities so as to foster efficient growth in the autonomous vehicle industry.

In response to the regulations that do exist in the US, Google formed a coalition in 2016 with Ford, Volvo, Uber, and Lyft, with the aim of lobbying for laws and regulations in favor of their experimental plans. In any case, US state and federal governments are encouraging the technology’s development, and David Friedman, former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator, announced that heavy regulation is the “last thing” that self-driving vehicle developers have to worry about.

On the European side, while states are generally left to regulate independently of the EU on these matters, leaders have established, among other initiatives, the Gear 2030 Road Map, aimed at establishing multi-level dialogue and eventual standardization of regulations.

Adjusting regulations to accommodate self-driving cars

While US regulation development is fairly straight forward, adjusting the legal aspects of self-driving vehicles in Europe will require lawmakers to go back to the United Nation’s 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. Although allowing Member States to establish specific national rules, the convention creates numerous obstacles when held up to today’s standards for autonomous driving, such as requiring self-driving vehicles to drive at no faster than 10km/hr. Nonetheless, legal developments have been made with special regard to autonomous driving, such as Germany giving the greenlight for testing as long as a black box records each handover protocol, and that a human driver remains within the driver seat – a requirement that California recently did away with, stating that a remote control of the vehicle was sufficient.

Furthermore, EU Directives will have to be adjusted in accordance with the details of self-driving vehicles and the questions they pose regarding liability and driving licenses. For example, EU Directive 2009/103/EC requires the use of all vehicles in the EU to be insured against third party liability and sets minimum thresholds for personal injury and property damage cover. The question then arises whether there would be a need for a compulsory insurance cover requirement on manufacturers for their liabilities. Yet Allianz has claimed that currently there is no action on the liability law, and a human will be still be held accountable in the near future.

Furthermore, EU Directive 2006/126/EC sets out minimum requirements for driving licenses. This directive will have to be adjusted in accordance with necessitating drivers to have an understanding of the limitations of automated vehicles and the situations in which they may need to take back control of the car. As for autonomous trucks, it could also become necessary to update EU Directive 2003/59/EC, which specifies training and initial qualifications of professional drivers.

As the recent accident in Arizona was likely not the last one of its kind, governments on both sides of the Atlantic are intent on moving forward so as to make the lives of citizens easier and comparatively safer. While a difficult line to walk, lawmakers seem to understand the benefits to be drawn from the success of autonomous vehicles, and are consequentially proceeding with caution.