Automated and autonomous driving represent a vital part of the mobility of the future. One glance at the new S-Class shows: today´s vehicles can already take the strain off drivers in many situations, and technological progress is moving fast. However, there are still unresolved issues on our way to autonomous driving, including the legal framework.
Automated or autonomous - these two terms distinguish two development stages within the context of autonomously driving vehicles. Modern assistance and partially automated systems support drivers, but they do not replace them. For instance, this includes the Stop&Go Pilot or Active Lane Changing Assist. In future, autonomous systems will go one step further: drivers will become mere passengers. The difference between automate and autonomous driving is also legally relevant.
Situation in Germany: Ethics Commission and statutory regulations
The German government has taken the initiative in terms of automated driving: on June 21st 2017, new regulations for automated driving came into force. "Consequently, Germany is the first country to regulate automated driving within a legal framework. We are very happy about this," explains Renata Jungo Brüngger, member of the Mercedes-Benz AG Executive Board, responsible for integrity and legal issues. Legislation creates the prerequisites for highly and fully automated systems. Unlike with partially automated systems, which merely support the driver, such systems completely take over control of the vehicle. However, the driver must be ready to take over again if and when required. The new laws do not allow autonomous driving when all of the occupants are merely passengers. There is still a need for action at international level in this context.
New technologies also trigger new legal issues and this is no different in the case of automated and autonomous driving. In Germany the government has reacted: in 2016, the federal government established an ethics commission to look at legal and ethical questions within the context of autonomous driving. In June 2017, the ethics commission adopted a final report comprising a total of 20 ethical rules, including the fact that protecting humans always takes priority. The ethics commission has also specified strict requirements in terms of data protection which are already taken into account today as part of the development of Mercedes-Benz automated and autonomous systems. In this process, three clear principles apply: transparency, self-determination, and data security.
International Legal Framework: Drivers Currently still Required
The different national regulations represent an additional challenge. For this reason, Mercedes-Benz is advocating an internationally harmonized legal framework for automated and autonomous driving. "Progress must not stop at national borders. Legislation must keep up with technical progress otherwise paramount innovations for automated and autonomous driving cannot be brought to the road," Renata Jungo Brüngger adds. "Legal certainty is a prerequisite for the acceptance of autonomous driving within society. For this reason, we quickly need an international harmonization of the legal framework." For instance, individual US states as well as EU member states currently enforce different stipulations.
At international level there are several agreements that specify the legal framework for national road traffic legislation. One of the most important is the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. In 1968, automated systems have not been developed yet and consequently, no framework was defined accordingly. Back then, regulations assumed the vehicle is controlled by human drivers. Automated systems have been permitted since the last change in March 2016. However, autonomous driving is not yet possible as the agreement still specifies drivers.
Regulations for the registration of automated vehicles must also be adapted at international level.
Liability: Balanced Distribution of Risk
One other aspect of automated and autonomous driving is the question of liability in the event of an accident.
In Germany and some other countries, the legal situation is unclear as there is a three-pillar liability system in force involving drivers, owners and manufacturers. Drivers are responsible for driving and they must constantly monitor the vehicle when partially autonomous driving functions are active to intervene in serious cases. If drivers do not fulfill their duty of care and cause an accident as a result, they are liable for the resulting damage alongside the owner. Apart from this, manufacturers may be liable for damage caused by a product fault as part of product and manufacturer liability.
This combination of liability on behalf of drivers, owners, and manufacturers offers a balanced distribution of risk, ensures that victims are protected and has proven itself in practice. The liability model also provides a good foundation for new systems and the next stages in the development of autonomous driving. Autonomous driving has the potential to further improve safety on the roads and the flow of traffic, and it can therefore lead to an overall fall in the number of claims and liability cases.
Dialog within Society also Important in Future
In addition to the described challenges, society's acceptance is a prerequisite for the future technology's breakthrough. "Vehicle manufacturers are unable to answer all of the questions surrounding autonomous driving, including those involving ethical issues, themselves. These must be discussed as part of a wider debate," Renata Jungo Brüngger explains. Mercedes-Benz has initiated this dialog and supports it with different measures. Consequently, Daimler organized a second specialist conference in October 2017 to analyze ethics and the legal situation as part of autonomous driving. As business representatives, we also continue our exchange with NGOs, politicians, and scientists as part of the sustainability dialog.
Mercedes-Benz is analyzing the complex issue from all relevant perspectives to drive forward the development of automated and autonomous driving. In addition to the technical aspects, a multidisciplinary steering committee deals with the issues relating to the law, ethics, and data protection. The committee includes developers and engineers as well as a team of legal experts specializing in autonomous driving. They are joined by experts on the subjects of data protection and compliance, as well as specialists in fields such as strategy, policy, and communications. This brings together comprehensive specialist expertise and different perspectives at an early stage of product development.