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Will Europe get left behind in the race for robocars?

Autonomous driving: who will be the frontrunner? (Photo: Fotolia / Wolfilser)

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Dr Joachim Becker
Dr Joachim Becker
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Germany represents Europe as the global frontrunner in the development of automated cars: or so many politicians say. But America’s bold approach to regulation could see Europe left in their wake.

“We will see fully autonomous driving by 2025,” claimed Audi-CEO Rupert Stadler at the recent annual shareholders' meeting. Like every premium carmaker, Audi wants to take the lead in automated driving. Every six months, the development team from Ingolstadt proudly presents the latest step taken along the road to a driverless future. This year, “Jack” – their “research car with social competence” – learned subtle nuances of human driving behavior. For instance, the A7 self-driving prototype now moves a little closer to the lane markers before activating the indicators when changing lanes.

The carmaker’s first “Auto-Pilot” will also be launched in the new A8 at the end of next year. The system will be able to fully take over the driving in stop-and-go-traffic up to a speed of 37 mph (60 km/h). So it seems the company stands in good stead to remain an AD frontrunner. However, there’s a catch: it is not yet clear if their new automated mode will in fact be legal in Europe by then.

Between horse-drawn and driverless vehicles

Where road traffic regulation is concerned, Europe depends on the Vienna convention. This treaty, dating back to 1968, declares that “every moving vehicle or combination of vehicles shall have a driver.” That sounds obvious, but in the light of modern technological advancements, one might say it’s quite old-fashioned. It refers to a time when it was also deemed necessary to declare that “the driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle or to guide his animals.”

However, nowadays, our Western roads are not exactly awash with coachmen guiding their horse-drawn vehicles anymore. Instead we find an increasing number of test-cars which steer, brake or accelerate on their own. Currently, the companies behind such fully autonomous prototypes are required to get a special permit as well as a test driver who controls the system. Since the Vienna convention, as it stands, does not actually allow for a fully autonomous operation. And therein lies a problem.

Audi's "Jack" is a "research car with social competence". (Photo: Audi)

The Vienna convention is in dire need of an update or it runs the risk of standing in the way of progress in the automated driving field. Luckily, it is currently undergoing change: “The door to autonomous driving is now open,” said Alexander Dobrindt, German minister of transport. This followed the German government’s proposal to review the convention. Since May 2014, the proposal has been undergoing checks by rule makers in more than fifty countries. Now, however, the opposition period has passed and the process of rewriting technical UNECE-regulations is underway. But how groundbreaking will the change really be?

In a nutshell, the update means that a system can run a car automatically, if it can be stopped by the driver at any given time. By definition, that is Level 3 automation; still two levels away from reaching fully autonomous driving. As Alexander Dobrindt claims, “Autonomous driving is the biggest revolution in mobility since the invention of motor cars“. True words; but if that is the case, then why not think big rather than make such an incremental step?

The driver is still required as a backup

The updated Vienna convention will essentially only allow for semi-autonomous driving. That is to say that the driver is not necessarily required to be involved in driving anymore, but is required to be a backup solution for any problem the machine is unable to resolve. Within 10 seconds the system can prompt the driver to resume control via ringing bells and flashing lights. A special permit was already granted for the new BMW 7series and the new Mercedes-Benz E-class to allow at least some steps towards this level of automation. Their Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) can more or less take over the steering of the car as long as the driver leaves his hands on the wheel. However, even under the new rule, fully automated steering systems are restricted to low speed maneuvering capped at 10km/h.

The BMW 7 series features level 2 automation. (Photo: BMW)

In what seems like another step in the right direction, the G7 ministers of transport, with Japan as chair and Germany assisting, are looking to change the rules for type approval for automated cars as soon as September this year. The type approval is the certificate of conformity which is granted to a product when it meets a minimum set of regulatory, technical and safety requirements.

But (and again, there’s a but), the working group will not come forward with all the technical specifications until the meeting in Japan in order to reserve the big announcement for the occasion. Experts are therefore expecting that the changes to the UNECE-regulations will only come into force in 2017. And remember, we are only talking about Level 3 automation here.

Fact is the discussion about Level 5 automation (fully autonomous driving) amongst politicians has not yet even begun in Europe! Yet it is exactly this sort of visionary, big-picture thinking that is required if we are to get there anytime soon. Even Audi boss Rupert Stadler expects it to take about ten years before fully autonomous cars are on Europe’s roads.

It seems in Europe at least, that despite the aforementioned incremental changes in the right direction, there is still a certain reluctance to hand control over to the machine. The fear of a “robocar running wild” seems to prevail. This fear makes rule makers overlook a danger that is much more real and imminent: Europe starts to lag behind when it comes to the development of technologies that will advance automated driving further – like artificial intelligence and robotics.  

Google speeding up legislation in the U.S.

Meanwhile, across the pond, decision makers take a different approach. Self-driving systems will become a billion-dollar-market quicker than most car owners would expect. So it is shaping up to be a three horse race in terms of leading the field in new technologies: U.S., Europe and Asia.

How each player deals with legislation will prove vital for their success. It seems the U.S. certainly don’t want to be second best, with road authorities such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) leading the charge. At the beginning of 2016, NHTSA announced it would write guidelines for self-driving cars within just six months! Transportation Secretary, Anthony Foxx said that the administration may indeed seek new legal authority to allow the deployment of autonomous vehicles “in large numbers” as soon as they are deemed safe, the department said. This suggests that the US for one, certainly are not reluctant to place more trust in the machines.

What is also of particular interest on this point is the public dialogue between NHTSA and Google on fully autonomous cars (level 5). In February 2016, U.S. vehicle safety regulators stated that the artificial intelligence system piloting a self-driving car could actually be recognized as ‘the driver’ under federal law: “We agree with Google its (self-driving car) will not have a 'driver' in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years,” NHTSA acknowledged in a letter to the Silicon Valley giant. This demonstrates another visionary step toward ultimately winning approval for autonomous vehicles to be allowed on the roads.

Google will retrofit the Chrysler Pacifica to make it self-driving. (Photo: FCA US)

So it looks as if the U.S. are shaping up to go all-in, while Europe continues to make a series of small bets. What many observers fail to see, however, is that courageous decision-making towards autonomous driving is by no means careless behavior. Quite the contrary: it is essential to improving safety on our roads. Machines don’t get exhausted or distracted while driving – they will, in fact, save countless lives once they’re allowed to take control.

Allowing only for level 3 semi-automation will, however, bring about an entirely new set of hazards: humans might fail to handle the transition between automated and manual mode appropriately. We will run the risk of manual take-overs being carried out too hastily or at the wrong moment. A problem that would be obliterated with a level 5-system.

In the case of automated driving, thinking visionary is actually the safer bet – in terms of economics as well as accident prevention. It’s the countries which understand that first, that will eventually win this race.

Is Europe falling behind America in the race towards a driverless future? What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comment section!

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