Autonomous Cars Self-Driving Cars Cause Legal Roadblock

The German government and the car industry are at odds over liability issues for self-driving cars. Who pays in the case of a crash when a car is driving itself?
Look, no hands. The automated Audi A7 will take you there.


Digitalization should be the theme of the 2015 International Motor Show (IAA) this September in Frankfurt am Main. The networked car of the future will run by itself, with low noise and low emissions, smoothly avoiding traffic and collisions.  It is designed to do away with many of the hassles of driving today and make car travel as pleasant as taking the train.

Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt believes self-driving cars can strengthen Germany’s position as a business leader in innovation. To that end, his ministry has developed a strategic plan to get German roads ready for that future, the “AF 2020” plan.

Mr. Dobrindt belongs to the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. He had hoped the government’s cabinet would approve the 2020 strategy in time for this year’s International Motor Show.

There is just one hurdle:  the unsettled legal questions that arise when cars will increasingly drive themselves. For example, should the driver be allowed to cede control of the car to an on-board computer? And who is liable when there's an accident?

Experts from the transport and justice ministries have been wrangling over these issues for months.

Drivers should be released of liability if they read e-mails while the car steers, speeds up or brakes.

The justice ministry is led by Heiko Maas of the Social Democrats, the junior partner in the governing coalition. His ministry maintains that a person must always have control over the technology – unless it is tested and deemed safe. In case of doubt, courts would have to clarify whether a driver could be found negligent by depending too much on a computer’s ability to navigate traffic.

The car industry insists there must be legal clarification on that point before self-driving cars can even be purchased. Drivers should be released of liability if, for example, they read e-mails while the car steers, speeds up or brakes. Officials in the justice ministry won't accept that.

Video: Audi piloted driving in Las Vegas.

The battle between cabinet departments is also playing out at the international level. Sweden and Belgium have suggested changes to international driving rules to accommodate autonomous driving.

Germany should have submitted its position on this "flexibility clause" at the beginning of the week. This didn't happen, however, so there there will be no changes to the international laws, and only driver-assisted systems will be allowed – where the driver can shut down computer control and take over.

In the end, German automakers Audi, BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen could suffer, even though they are ahead now in self-driving technology. Audi and BMW, for instance, want to begin selling self-parking cars.

Since countries are allowed to determine their own traffic rules, Sweden or the United States could allow self-driving vehicles onto their roads – and give a boost to companies like Volvo or Google in the innovation race. In 2017, Swedish-based Volvo, for example, plans to let 100 customers test its self-driving vehicles on the roads.

“There is a threat of missing out,” said Thomas Jarzombek of the center-right CDU. Without legal clarification, the technology would ultimately migrate to the United States, he said.

Sören Bartol, a party leader in the center-left SPD, said that “automated driving can offer the opportunity to organize road traffic more safely and more efficiently.”

For now, there is no active negotiation between the transport and justice ministries on the issue. At the last roundtable in Mr. Dobrindt’s department, representatives of the justice department did not show up. There were no further talks on a working level, it was said in the follow up. Any hope of reaching an agreement on liability questions has been delayed until 2018.

Despite legal roadblocks, there is some movement. This month the federal government and state of Bavaria will sign an agreement to expand the A9 highway into a digital test area.

Between Ingolstadt and Nuremberg in southern Germany, for example, a service area will be digitalized for data recording purposes. Reference cards for on-board computers will be developed and sensors will be tested to recognize high speeds or those driving the wrong way.

The digital test area could be an “open laboratory for all providers” –  but for now, at least, there will always be a driver behind the wheel.


Daniel Delhaes reports for Handelsblatt from Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected].