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Berlin's driverless car controversy

How is Germany going to take on the driverless challenge? (Photo: Fotolia/Boris Stroujko)

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Germany just passed the world’s first law for automated driving. But with federal elections just around the corner, the political parties’ visions for driverless cars couldn’t be further apart. 2025AD spoke directly to four of the key figures involved.

Two months before the federal elections in Germany, attention is turning to Berlin for various reasons. That is also the case when it comes to autonomous driving. In addition to the ever-increasing interest in the technology, there is another reason why the topic has received unusual attention. On May 15, 2017 Germany’s upper house (the Bundesrat) passed a new transport law, making Germany the first country in the world to clarify the legal framework for automated driving. The debate was expectedly heated as different plans for the future rules of the road emerged.

Ping-pong with Brussels

“After the last elections we sat down with the new Minister for Transport Alexander Dobrindt to decide if we would pass a law on automated driving,” remembers Kirsten Lühmann, Member of Parliament (MP) and mobility expert of the SPD (Social Democrats). Her government saw at least four reasons to act: Autonomous cars would bring better security, greater comfort, a more efficient use of infrastructure and a reduction of CO2 emissions.

“First the minister said: ‘Let’s wait and see what Brussels does.’ But then the EU Commission decided: ‘Let’s wait and see what Germany does.’” At that point, the government in Berlin changed its mind. “The car industry needs to know the legal requirements to proceed with their developments, so we didn’t wait any longer and proceeded with a new law to give guidance to the rest of the EU.”

Time for a new law?

The two major opposition parties, Die Linke (the Left) and Die Grünen (the Greens), disapproved when the new law was passed. Both felt that it had been rushed by the governing coalition of the CSU (Christian Social Union), CDU (Christian Democratic Union) and the SPD under industry pressure. “The aim was not to create a modern transport policy, but a new business opportunity for the German car industry. The drivers are being used as guinea pigs to test what is possible for cars in traffic,” says Herbert Behrens, Linke MP.

Grünen MP Stephan Kühn agrees. “I don’t understand why the Minister for Transport set up a special commission to discuss the ethical questions of autonomous driving, but does not await the presentation of its results.”

Minister Alexander Dobrindt of the CSU counters that criticism. He remembers a discussion in September 2016 about the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, when Stephan Kühn had demanded that the government should pass a law on autonomous driving as quickly as possible. “You have to decide if you want to be a technological front-runner or one of the sceptics who waits for others to develop something and then sell it to us.” He praised his legal reform as “the most modern transport law in the world.”

When are driverless cars going to hit German highways? (Photo: Fotolia/shantihesse)

Black list for the black box

Even more contentious than the timing of the law is its content. The opposition parties, consumer protection organizations and even Federal Commissioner for Data Protection Andrea Voßhoff criticized the initial proposal for the use of cars’ data. To examine accidents, large amounts of data were to be stored for three years in cars’ black boxes.

“We accepted that criticism,” says SPD MP Lühmann, who helped draft the law. “Thus we presented a revised version that only requires the data to be stored for six months. And we reduced the scope of the recorded data to one central question: Who was responsible for the driving at a certain point: the car or the driver?”

Yet MP for the Greens Kühn is not satisfied: “Way too much data is still being stored for six months. That is too long. I have seen no plausible explanation why that should be necessary. Furthermore, the data should be stored in an independent center that controls which data is passed on,” he says. “Finally, many details concerning the storage of the data and the protection against hacking threats are left to later specification.”

A final criticism is voiced by Linke MP Behrens. “There should be a rule that the data can only be used in the case of an accident. Only then is it necessary to examine who was in charge of the steering: a computer or a driver.”

Costly cruising

One of the most disputed aspects of the law is liability after accidents. The law specifies that drivers are allowed to take their hands off the steering wheel in defined situations. However, drivers must remain ready to take over as soon as the car requests it. As a result, the liability for accidents lies with the driver when he is driving himself or should he ignore the car’s request to do so.

The opposition parties see several problems. “According to the law the driver must be able to deactivate the technical system at all times. But does that always make sense?” asks Grünen MP Kühn. “In a critical situation it might demand too much of the driver.”

SPD MP Lühmann remembers the internal debate about those details. “We quickly agreed that the driver must not be allowed to leave his seat. That would be too risky. But the minister was very keen to allow drivers to turn away from the steering wheel, as he insisted that self-driving cars must offer some advantages for consumers to buy them,” she explains. “So we clarified that the car must warn the driver to take over the steering wheel with ‘sufficient leeway’. We discussed this term for a long time. All experts specified that it made no sense to define a certain number of seconds, because it depends on the situation and the kind of autonomous function that the car is currently using.”

Another central requirement of the law is that cars have to indicate to drivers if they leave roads that are safe for automated driving, such as highways, and enter smaller roads. “We always had the Tesla accident in mind, where the car had not explicitly warned the driver.”

Kühn and his party would still like the law to be more specific. They would prefer drivers to know exactly what they are allowed to do, while the car is driving itself, and what not. “You will not convince consumers to use self-driving cars with this law,” he predicts. He also criticizes that even though autonomous cars are supposed to increase safety, the maximum liability for damages was raised from 5 to 10 million Euros. “That will be paid for by consumers through higher insurance fees.”

The Left is bolder still. “We want liability to clearly lie with the car manufacturers. They should always have the burden of proof if the car was driving in autonomous mode,” says Hendrik Thalheim, speaker of the party. “Otherwise using such cars would not be attractive, as you would always be facing a prison sentence if you relied on the car.”

Revision in 2019

Yet there is at least one thing that the parties agree on. “We all know that this is a pioneering first attempt. This will not be the final standpoint on such a fast-moving subject,” says Lühmann. It will be important to see how the technology develops. “So we all agreed that we will come back to it in 2019 and then possibly pass a revised version of the law.”

What do you think about the German political leaders' standpoints concerning an autonomous future? Please let us know in the comments!

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