AUTO PILOT A Brave New Driverless World

As cars begin to drive themselves, the European Union turns its attention to a networked auto future. But in Germany, two separate ministries want to take the wheel.
It's alive!

German transport minister Alexander Dobrindt still raves about the day he cruised down the A9 highway at the wheel of a self-driving car. All he had to do was push a button and, hey presto, the steering wheel turned and the car prepared to pass at 130 kmh. Mr. Dobrindt literally did not have to lift a finger.

Incredible? You bet — especially for backseat passengers wiping sweat from their brows.

Autonomous, networked driving is coming. And although carmakers anticipate big profits, they’re nervous about liability: Who is actually responsible when an automated vehicle crashes?

As they search for solutions, German carmakers like BMW and Daimler are coming under pressure and going head to head with U.S. Internet giants like Apple and Google, who are also working on self-driving cars, but have the edge in terms of big data.

Legal changes are required for fully automated driving. Current traffic regulations expect vehicles to be controlled by the driver. Daniel Paul, Partner, Linklaters

For Elzbieta Bienkowska, the E.U. commissioner for internal markets, the auto industry is a sparkplug of Europe’s economy, and future growth hinges on competition. To stay on top of what will be needed, the commissioner set up GEAR 2030 – a high-level advisory body representing 12 member states, industry and consumer groups, trade unions and road safety officials. They will meet regularly in coming months to come up with recommendations by late 2017.

The German Auto Industry Association has produced a 12-page paper on the subject: “Concepts for Legal Regulation in Introducing Automated and Autonomous Driving Systems for Vehicles.” It presented the report to the German government and made a copy available to Handelsblatt.

Mr. Dobrindt, of the center-right Christian Social Union, sister party of the ruling Christian Democratic Union, is still enthusiastic about his adventure on the A9 and wants to “continue the success story of digital cars.” And Germany’s economics minister, Sigmar Gabriel of the center-left Social Democrats, who are in coalition with the CDU/CSU, also believes the future lies in networked and autonomous driving.

When it comes to responsibility, however, the two federal ministers are at odds.

Mr. Gabriel believes his staff should be heading to Brussels for discussions with E.U. officials. But future-oriented areas come under Mr. Dobrindt’s Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure — and he has already brought a strategy for autonomous driving through the cabinet.

On top of that, the transport minister has a work group that is preparing standards for networked cars for the next G7 summit. Meantime in the economics ministry, Mr. Gabriel claims responsibility for “bigger research projects and individual studies,” sources say.

Naturally, carmakers are keen to steer automated vehicles to market quickly. They want traffic laws to distinguish between cars actually piloted by a driver and those in which a driver is merely a passenger. They also expect lawmakers to settle liability issues. For now, they say, the legal uncertainty of liability for drivers and carmakers stands in the way of using automated systems.

“Legal changes are required for fully automated driving,” explained Daniel Paul, a partner at Linklaters, a global law firm. “Current traffic regulations expect vehicles to be controlled by the driver.”

New international laws, which take effect in March as part of the Vienna Convention on international traffic laws, also assume control by the driver.

The German auto industry group wants cars equipped with several data storage devices to settle liability issues and “protect victims.”

For instance, an “event recorder” — akin to a black box in aircraft — would save data 30 seconds before and after an accident. This would help “to clarify responsibility for traffic violations and reconstruct accidents,” carmakers argue.

Lawmakers should allow the technology and even make it mandatory in vehicles, they say. Of course, that’s music to the ears of Internet giants like Facebook, which turn customer data into cash.

While the German coalition government aims to boost “intelligent mobility,” it has said the question of liability is already settled and remains with carmakers.

Last week, the CDU/CSU agreed with their SPD coalition partner on a motion giving drivers control of personal data. To this end, drivers should be able to activate and deactivate data transfer at the press of a button “anytime and in a simple manner.”

Although carmakers have avoided clear commitments so far, they have told data protectors that drivers should to be able to deactivate data transfer easily.

Matters might be simpler if the transport and justice ministries sorted out their “connecting error.”

Meantime, the chancellery has handed responsibility for GEAR 2030 to Mr. Gabriel, according to his staff, but that doesn’t seem to matter in Mr. Dobrindt’s ministry.

As a result, two secretaries of state and their entourages headed to Brussels on Tuesday.


Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt's Berlin office. To contact the author: [email protected]