Autonomous Driving: Legal and ethical framework.

Legal and ethical framework

Automated and fully automated driving.

With DRIVE PILOT, Mercedes-Benz is the first vehicle manufacturer to receive a globally valid system approval for conditionally automated driving in accordance with SAE Level 3. The company is thus offering its customers a completely new type of mobility. However, new technologies also raise new legal questions.

DRIVE PILOT from Mercedes-Benz is already on the market in Germany and in the states of Nevada and California in the USA. It enables the person at the wheel to hand over dynamic driving tasks to the vehicle under certain conditions. Peripheral activities such as reading a book, surfing the internet, watching TV or streaming a film are now legally possible for the first time. Mercedes-Benz is thus offering the first production-ready SAE Level 3 system in accordance with the specifications of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

A basic distinction is made between five levels of automated driving. While at level 1, assisted driving, the driver must be in constant control of the vehicle, at level 5 the car takes over the entire driving task under all conditions. In fully automated driving SAE level 5, people are only on board the vehicle as passengers as it manoeuvres independently through traffic.

¹ The automated driving function takes over certain driving tasks. However, a person must still be ready to take control of the vehicle at all times if prompted to do so by the vehicle.

² The availability and use of the DRIVE PILOT functions on the motorway depend on the equipment, countries and applicable laws.

The difference between assisted and highly automated systems is also very important from a legal perspective.

The legal situation in Germany

Since the German Road Traffic Regulations were amended in June 2017, it has been permissible in Germany to operate a vehicle with a conditionally automated driving function (SAE level 3). If the function is activated, the person at the wheel may turn away from the traffic situation and the vehicle controls, but must be able to take control of the wheel again at any time. The prerequisite for this is that this function is used in the operating range, the so called Operational Design Domain, specified by the manufacturer.

With what is known as the law on fully automated driving from 2021 and the ‘Autonomous Vehicle Authorisation and Operation Directive’ (AFGBV) from 2022, Germany has created the legal framework for the legal and technical implementation of highly automated driving in accordance with SAE Level 4. The law allows such Level 4 vehicles in Germany to take part in public road traffic without a driver physically present – but only in pre-approved operating areas. Initially, use cases will therefore probably be shuttle buses on company premises or at trade fairs. In addition, the operation of highly automated vehicles must be permanently monitored by an external technical supervisor who can intervene in the driving function and deactivate it if necessary. However, the supervisor doesn't necessarily have to be seated in the car; he or she can also be connected wirelessly.

New technologies require legal certainty. This is the key to the safe use of partially and highly automated vehicles in global road traffic – and to the trust of customers worldwide. We want to bring innovations onto the road quickly. Therefore, we need regulatory harmonisation at international level. Legislation must keep pace with technological developments without stopping progress at national borders.

Renata Jungo Brüngger, Member of the Board of Management of Mercedes-Benz Group AG. Integrity, governance & sustainability

Legal regulations in the EU

Even though some countries such as France and the UK have now created legal regulations for the use of automated systems or have initiated corresponding legislative processes, there is still no internationally applicable legislation.

Since 2022, highly automated vehicles with autonomous driving functions can be authorised in the EU. However, the use of such vehicles in EU countries is initially restricted to routes requiring authorisation. Significant progress was made in 2023: Since January, a UN regulation has allowed cars in Level 3 use to travel at speeds of up to 130 km/h in certain traffic situations such as on motorways and when changing lanes.

International legal framework conditions

In the USA, there is currently no nationwide legal framework for vehicles with fully automated driving functions. Here, the individual states decide on special licences according to individual specifications. Corresponding laws exist in around half of the US states, but in most cases they only permit the testing of fully automated vehicles – with the exception of California and Nevada, where Mercedes-Benz was the first vehicle manufacturer to receive certification for conditionally automated driving.

China mainly grants exemptions and issues special regional regulations for the testing and operation of automated vehicle systems. In the metropolis of Shenzhen, for example, fully autonomous vehicles have been permitted on certain roads since 2022. In December 2023, Mercedes-Benz was one of the first vehicle manufacturers to receive approval to test conditionally automated driving systems (Level 3) in Beijing.

Renata Jungo Brüngger: ‘Automated driving systems have the potential to further improve road safety and further reduce accident rates.’
Renata Jungo Brüngger: ‘Automated driving systems have the potential to further improve road safety and further reduce accident rates.’

Liability for automated driving

Automated vehicles not only give the person behind the wheel more freedom. ‘Automated driving systems have the potential to further improve road safety and further reduce accident rates’, says Renata Jungo Brüngger. However, if an accident occurs with one of these vehicles, the question of liability arises. In some countries, including Germany, the legal situation is clear: There is a combination of driver, holder and manufacturer liability. Up to and including level 2 of automated driving, the person at the wheel is responsible for the driving task and compliance with traffic regulations. In SAE Level 3 conditionally automated driving, the person at the wheel may turn away from the driving task under certain conditions while the system is working within the defined functional range. However, they continue to have duties on public roads even during conditionally automated driving operation and must take over the driving task again at any time if the system requests them to do so.

In the event of a road accident, liability depends on the individual case: If the driver fails to fulfil their duty to take due care and causes an accident as a result, they and the holder are liable for the resulting damage. In addition, the manufacturer may be liable for damage caused by a product defect within the scope of product and manufacturer liability. This applies to both automated and conventional vehicles. ‘This liability model offers a balanced distribution of risk, ensures victim protection and has proven itself in practice. It also forms a good basis for new systems and the next steps in automated driving’, says Renata Jungo Brüngger.

For Mercedes-Benz as a manufacturer, vehicles taking over the task of driving means the following: The implementation of traffic regulations is part of the system design. For this purpose, the road traffic regulations are translated into requirements for the software. Experts from the fields of development, law, ethics, product safety and certification work together on an interdisciplinary basis from the outset and consider technical, legal, regulatory and ethical aspects in equal measure. Their aim is to develop safe and reliable automated systems for all road users.

Ethical guidelines and social discourse

Automated driving raises new ethical questions as well as legal ones. Back in 2016, politicians in Germany set up an interdisciplinary ethics committee, in which Renata Jungo Brüngger was also involved, to draw up ethical guidelines for automated and connected driving. For example, the focus was on rules for improving the safety of all road users, prioritising the protection of people and data sovereignty. These fundamentals are already being incorporated into the development of automated systems at Mercedes-Benz. Furthermore, in July 2023, the international standard ISO 39003:2023 ‘Road traffic safety (RTS) – Guidance on ethical considerations relating to safety for autonomous vehicles’ was published. The aim of the standard is to help manufacturers of autonomous vehicles to take ethical aspects into account in the development process in future. Here, too, Mercedes-Benz has been involved at national and international level from the very beginning.

‘In addition to the technical challenges, acceptance in society is important for the breakthrough of automated driving. However, some questions relating to fully automated driving, including ethical aspects, cannot be answered by vehicle manufacturers alone. To this end, we have been driving forward a broad social discourse for years’, says Renata Jungo Brüngger. Mercedes-Benz promotes an open dialogue between business and consumer associations, policymakers, authorities, industry, science and civil society. The Group has been using the annual ‘Sustainability Dialogue’ since 2015 to discuss ethical, legal and social issues in connection with automated driving. Mercedes-Benz is also a member of numerous international and national committees and associations in order to establish legal framework conditions, technical standards and ethical guidelines.

This article was last updated in May 2024.