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How to deal with the constraints of China's laws on driverless cars

Chinese traffic: a legal challenge for automated driving. (Photo: Fotolia / estherpoon)

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China has set itself ambitious goals for introducing intelligent connected vehicles to its roads: By 2020 the country's set out to have mastered the key technologies of intelligent assisted driving. Fully automated driving technology is supposed to be established by 2025.

This article seeks to step-by-step analyze the main constraints of the content of China's current laws and regulations regarding the development of automated driving, horizontally examine the practices of other countries that have developed automated driving, and finally provide some suggestions on how to deal with these provisions.

I. How the existing legal framework affects the development of Automated Driving

1. Laws and regulations
At the heart of all regulations concerning individual road travel stands the Road Traffic Safety Law, which adopts the prerequisite that all drivers need to obtain proper licenses before they operate a motor-driven vehicle. The law further specifies that all applicants for such licenses need to be humans who qualify for obtaining a driving permit based on the conditions set forth by the Ministry of Public Security of the State Council. These conditions in turn insist that objects other than humans (e. g. automated driving systems) cannot operate motor vehicles.

However, even if they could, they wouldn’t get the chance to, since those very systems are prohibited from being “produced, sold or imported” in the first place. This is due to the fact that automated driving systems at this point are still in their research and development phase and thus not in accordance with mandatory standards as set forth in the Standardization Law. And, to make matters even more complicated, even if the restrictions of this law could somehow be overcome, the mere usage of self-driving cars is, again by the Road Traffic Safety Law, forbidden, which bans motor vehicles with incomplete safety facilities or mechanical parts that do not meet technical standards from Chinas roads.

The ideal is always perfect, while the reality is always challenging: China's AD road map.

Especially on highways, any testing of vehicles is prohibited, which makes it impossible for companies or research institutions to carry out assessments of new technology under real-life conditions.

And then there is also the high-precision map aspect: Information collection (such as with cameras), high-precision positioning data and high-precision maps belong belong to the legal category of surveying and mapping. However, most enterprises engaging in R&D and manufacturing of automated driving have not obtained the qualifications necessary to operate in this legally relevant area. Therefore, the next problem to be solved shall be how to redefine the range of the application that fall under the Surveying and Mapping Law in the context of automated driving.

2. National mandatory technical standards and regulations
There aren’t too many provisions in the mandatory technical regulations in the automotive industry involving automated driving vehicles, except for two main ones: The first is the GB 17675-1999 Basic Requirements for Steering Systems, which requires that the steering of the motor vehicle shall be conducted by the driver directly through the steering wheel, and prohibits the use of full power steering systems, which has practically prohibited automatic steering in terms of structure, function and operation. The second is the front vision requirement set out in GB 11562-2014 Automobile Driver’s Front Vision Requirements and Measurement Methods, which has limited the deployment of the front camera to a certain extent, but has not prohibited it.

List of the main laws and regulations relating to Intelligent Connected Vehicles

II. Global Legislation Trends in Automated driving

1. International organizations
While global automated driving legislation is at an early stage as a whole, international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) are actively promoting revisions to the existing regulations to remove regulatory barriers to the development of automated driving technology and have made positive progress.

The United Nations Amendment on the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, an amendment regarding automatic vehicle driving technology, came into force on March 23, 2016, clearly stipulating that, under the condition of being in full compliance with the United Nations Vehicle Management Regulations or if the driver has the option to turn off the technology, transferring the responsibility of driving a vehicle to an automated driving technology can be applied in transportation.

2. The policy and legislative progress on automated driving in the United States
As we all know, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) issued the "Federal Automated driving Vehicle Policy" specifically for automated driving vehicles in September 2016,” This policy and the following responsive policies of some states have two significant meanings: first, they allowed automated driving vehicles to access public roads for testing, and simplified the permission procedures of automated driving vehicle testing. Second, they clarified the responsibility of the original manufacturer of the vehicles and the vendor of the automated driving technology.

3. Germany
Already in 2015, the German government authorized an AD testing route on the A9 highway connecting Munich and Berlin. In 2016, the federal government approved new legislation in which the definition of “driver” was extended to include automated systems with full control over the vehicle (so called “driverless cars”). Thereby the issue of allowing such vehicles on public road for testing was resolved.

III. How to deal with existing regulations restricting the development of Intelligent Connected Vehicles

In fact, the Ministry of Communications, the Ministry of Public Security and other relevant departments are currently promoting automated driving testing legislation, but have not yet put forward a specific schedule. We believe the fact that Yanhong Li, the CEO of Baidu, who traveled on the road in Beijing in an automated driving vehicle as reported by “the Chaoyang masses” on July 5, will have a positive effect on promoting the legislation.

Baidu is one of China's biggest autonomous driving players. (Photo: Baidu)

1. The Surveying and Mapping Law
Both of these laws involve national security, which is why it might be best to leave the legal framework unchanged. Instead, those surveying and mapping activities possibly involved in AD technology should be classified through specific implementation or documentation instead:

First, all surveying and mapping activities that could potentially affect national security should be overseen by qualified departments that in turn provide for manufacturers in need of that data through specified procedures.

Second though, all other non-critical activities in connection to this data should be carried out by these companies on their own.

However, the definition of which piece of that data (and activities connected to it) is critical and which is not, shall need to be made by governmental departments familiar with that matter.

2. Road Traffic Safety Law and its regulations on implementation
For the regulation of human drivers vs. “robot drivers”, the United Nations and German bills can be used as a reference. Take the interpretation of the Security Law as an example:

First of all, it explains that the responsibility for driving the vehicle shall be borne by the human driver regardless of whether the vehicle is driven directly by the human driver or the automated driving system in place of the human driver; that is to say, in the event of a traffic accident, the human driver shall bear the overall responsibility first.

United Nations (UN) are actively promoting revisions to the existing regulations. (Photo: United Nations)

Secondly, according to the identification of “who” was driving the vehicle when the accident occurred

  • if it’s confirmed that the vehicle was being driven by the human driver, the human driver shall bear all responsibility;
  • if the automated driving system was driving the vehicle, or during the period of the transition of the driving task between the human driver and the automated driving system, the vendor of the automated vehicle shall bear the responsibility.

3. National mandatory technical standards

As mentioned above, for the content of automatic steering functions and front deployments that do not meet the mandatory standards, we suggest that 1) a list of mandatory standards inapplicable to ICV through relevant automotive product admittance documents to exempt ICV be proposed, or 2) ICV be excluded from its scope of application through the issue of a modification list.

In this context, the Chinese Automotive Technology & Research Center has announced that when developing and revising the relevant standards in the future, it will introduce the principle of "equivalent function" and "equivalent effect": that is to say, without compromising the system function and effect of the vehicles, it will allow the use of other technologies or products with equivalent functions and effects. This principle will provide convenience and access for the new technologies and new devices that emerge in the development of ICV.

About our author:

Liuhuo is a pretend-to-be technology geek who has been engaged in traditional vehicle companies for years and is keen on industry research, technical analysis and regulatory policy research on new energy vehicles and automated driving.

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