How Germany hopes to gain the advantage in driverless technology
FRANKFURT – In Hamburg, a fleet of Volkswagen electric vans belonging to a carpooling service roam the streets to pick up and drop off passengers. Vehicles steer themselves, but technicians working from a remote control center monitor their progress using video monitors. In the event of a problem, they can take control of the vehicle and remove it from the cause.
This futuristic vision, within the reach of current technology, is on the way to becoming legal in Germany. The Berlin Parliament approved a new law on autonomous driving in May, and it is awaiting the signature of the German president, a formality. The law paves the way for companies to start making money from autonomous driving services, which could also boost development.
By requiring autonomous vehicles to be supervised by humans, German law reflects a realization in the industry that researchers are still years away from cars that can allow the driver to safely disengage while the car is on. all the work. The law also requires autonomous vehicles to travel within a defined space approved by authorities, a recognition that the technology is not advanced enough to operate safely in areas with chaotic and unpredictable traffic.
German companies pursuing the technology have therefore adjusted their ambitions, focusing on lucrative uses that don’t require major breakthroughs.
Germany’s national approach contrasts with the patchwork of state laws in the United States. The U.S. government released guidelines for autonomous driving, but attempts to establish mandatory rules that would apply in all 50 states failed in Congress amid disagreements between automakers and autonomous driving developers over what. that the legislation should say.
Some states have encouraged research on autonomous driving; Arizona, for example, allows Waymo to offer driverless taxis in Phoenix. But it is not yet possible to roll out such services nationwide, reaching the kind of scale that would help make them cost effective.
“Germany is unique in the sense that you now have a law that applies to the whole country,” said Elliot Katz, commercial director of Phantom Auto, a California-based company that provides software to monitor and control traffic. remote vehicles. “In the United States, we do not have comprehensive federal regulations on autonomous driving. We have state laws, which is problematic because driving is inherently interstate. “
German law could also give the country’s automakers an edge in the race to design cars that can drive themselves. By commercially deploying autonomous vehicles, they will gather large amounts of data that they can use to advance technology. If the services are cost effective, they will also help pay for further development.
“There are two major topics for German automakers: the shift to electric cars and autonomous driving,” said Moritz Hüsch, partner at the Covington law firm in Frankfurt who has followed the legislation. “German car manufacturers are one of our crown jewels. They are really keen to be at the forefront of both subjects.
The law authorizes autonomous vehicles which remain in a defined territory and are supervised by qualified technicians. Importantly, it allows monitors to keep an eye on many vehicles from a distance. This means that a person or team could supervise a fleet of autonomous shuttles or autonomous taxis by video from a command center, eliminating the need for a supervisor in each vehicle. In the event of a problem, a technician would be able to take control of the vehicle remotely.
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Supporters say the law will allow autonomous buses to serve rural areas where public transport is scarce. Other services may include automated valet parking or robotic parcel delivery. Autonomous vehicles could be used to transport components or workers in an industrial complex or students in a university.
There are already vehicles capable of following a predictable route, for example from an airport parking lot to a departure terminal, but current German law requires the presence of a human being on board, which negates any resulting savings. elimination of the driver.
While a driver can oversee a dozen buses from a command center, “there are use cases that would be attractive now,” said Peter Liggesmeyer, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering in Kaiserslautern. This will encourage more development, he said.
In technical jargon, the new law allows level 4 autonomous driving, in which a vehicle can steer and navigate on its own most of the time but can sometimes require human intervention. It’s a step away from the nirvana of self-driving cars that can run without any human assistance.
Volkswagen, for example, tested a carpooling service in Hamburg and Berlin called Moia. The new law makes it easier for Volkswagen to meet its goal of converting Moia’s electric vans to autonomous operation by 2025, although further changes to the country’s public transport law may be required as well.
“The use of autonomous vehicles in Germany is now possible,” said Christian Senger, senior vice president of Volkswagen’s commercial vehicle division responsible for autonomous driving, in a statement. “This is something that not only Volkswagen but all market players have been waiting for.”
Tech companies like Waymo or automakers like Toyota have invested billions of dollars in autonomous driving technology, but have yet to see much return on their investment. Uber sold its autonomous driving unit last year after investing more than $ 1 billion. Fatal crashes involving Tesla’s Autopilot software have raised questions about the technology’s shortcomings.
Whether a uniform legal framework will give German companies a decisive advantage over American companies is another question. It was the intention.
“Germany may be the first country in the world to put driverless laboratory vehicles into everyday use,” said Arno Klare, member of the Social Democratic Parliament, during the debate on the law in Berlin.
In the United States, as soon as an autonomous vehicle tries to cross state borders, things get complicated. California, Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are considered leaders in providing legal parameters for autonomous driving technology. But 10 states, including New Jersey, Rhode Island and Maryland, have not passed laws or executive orders governing autonomous driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Rules in other states have not followed a consistent pattern.
Raj Rajkumar, who heads the autonomous driving program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which has trained many leading scientists in the field, said the new legislation would give German companies an advantage. But he said he was concerned that the United States and Europe both risked falling behind China on technology and regulation.
“There is an international arms race between the United States, Europe and China,” said Rajkumar, who estimates that fully autonomous vehicles are still a decade away. “China is an authoritarian country. They can make whatever rules they want overnight.