Last week, Germany adopted legislation that could mean driverless cars on public roads as early as next year. The law is intended to cover the technical requirements for the construction, condition and equipment of autonomous vehicles – as well as the testing and the procedure for issuing an operating licenses for these vehicles. The bill still needs to pass through the upper chamber of parliament.
For Daniel Auger, IEEE senior member and Reader in Electrification, Automation and Control at Cranfield University, this development demonstrates the maturing nature of the driverless cars market, “a few years ago, people became very optimistic about the possibilities of connected and autonomous vehicles. As with every hype cycle, there was a lot of enthusiasm and ambition at the start, however, now, people have a better understanding of what is actually possible and how quickly the technology can indeed mature – there’s still a lot of work going on behind the scenes.
“The legal developments in Germany last week introduced a ground-breaking level of autonomy in vehicles on German roads. A computer will soon be able to control the car without the need for human control. This is a huge step towards driverless vehicles becoming prevalent throughout Europe,” comments Paul Kirkpatrick a Partner at Browne Jacobson, who leads the firm’s automotive legal practice.
According to Mark Barclay, Ecommerce Manager at GSF Car Parts, Germany is now on course to be Europe’s leading driverless market, “the UK were the first to announce the possibility of driverless vehicles on our roads, perhaps as early as the end of this year, but Germany may beat us to it. And, the UK government are only considering Level 2 automation, whereas Germany are going beyond that to Level 4.”
Even though the legislation may be moving forwards on a country by country basis, David Emm, Principal Security Researcher at Kaspersky is quick to point out that letting go of vehicle control is still a big mental barrier for many people.”Driverless cars have been long predicted, with many having thought by 2020 we would already have adopted this technology on a mass scale. Historically, driving has always been an aspect of life where human control has been essential, so the idea of watching a film or sleeping while a car transports us feels understandably ‘wrong’ to many people.”
Is this (finally) the start of Europe’s driverless future?
So where does this leave Europe’s driverless cars market? There’s still a huge amount of work to be done to prepare roads, traffic systems, as well as ensuring that vehicles can be driven across country borders where regulations differ. While some short-term measures will allow for immediate testing on public roads, long term infrastructure still has a long way to go.
“Whilst Germany is leading the field, other European countries are not far behind. The UN Regulation on Automated Lane Keeping Systems provides for a level of autonomy just below what is being seen in Germany. That regulation applies to 60 countries across the world, including Member States of the European Union”, explains Paul Kirkpatrick.
“One thing to consider of course, is the impact COVID-19 will have on the transport sector, however, this is rather complex. On one hand, people have found ways of working that require less physical presence. For example, shared rides and public transport are perhaps less attractive to the consumer now, especially given the rise of flexible working patterns – though this may well begin to recover. However, safe personal transport and the movement of consumer goods have perhaps never been so important,” adds Daniel Auger, IEEE senior member and Reader in Electrification, Automation and Control at Cranfield University.
But there is also the need for caution according to Joachim Brand, Head of Electric and Autonomous Vehicles at Gemserv, “while legislators are working to understand the ins and outs permitting driverless cars on our roads, this also is a complex task that still will take time to develop before deemed fit for purpose. As we struggle to phase out fossil fuel vehicles and migrate towards electric vehicles it is worth taking into considerations the infra-structure requirements that will be required for autonomous vehicles.No doubt autonomous vehicles will become reality perhaps sooner than one might think, but we should question our readiness at every step along the way.”
Managing cyber and physical security
Safety and cybersecurity are never far away from the legislative or technical discussions happening in the driverless cars market.
Germany’s latest development might prove the perfect testing ground, according to Udo Schneider, IoT Security Evangelist Europe at cybersecurity firm Trend Micro, “Given the dense traffic situation in Germany this might be a perfect testbed/validation to improve the efficiency and security/safety of driverless vehicles. ”
According to Mark Barclay, automotive safety is one of the main arguments for pushing forward Europe’s driverless capabilities, “driverless vehicles have the potential to massively reduce the number of traffic collisions we see on our roads. Human error is far and away the biggest cause of accidents (85%), so by incorporating AI into our driving habits, these risks have the potential to be decreased. It can even help improve issues such as urban congestion and traffic jams, which in turn may reduce pollution and improve air quality in cities.”
While China and the US push ahead in the world of driverless cars, AI and accompanying legislation. Whether Germans will see driverless vehicles on the roads as soon as next year remains to be seen. The ambition and technology has been developing for years, it now looks like Europe is finally starting to get the framework in place to spearhead the sector on the continent too.