Germany takes the next step to self-driving cars

20 July 2016

Dr Alexander Duisberg

Germany’s Federal Government is about to reform its national road traffic laws, and has announced to present a draft bill on autonomous driving by the end of this month. German car manufacturers have pushed for legislative amendments in the recent past, fearing to be left behind by US competitors. The details are yet to follow and we will report, once the draft legislation is out in the public.

As reported last year (see here), the German Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure had previously predicted that self-driving cars would be driving humans on German roads in confined areas by 2020, i.e. in of lower traffic complexity (Autobahn) and low speed areas (car parking). The initiative is to date the most far-reaching legislative step towards autonomous driving on German roads. It will provide the legal basis for temporary, full transfer of the driver’s control to the automated driving system. The proposal comes with an eye to the fatal crashs of self-driving cars in the US, and provides certain restrictions.

The key aspects summarize as follows (further details in our next newsletter, once the draft is out in the public):

Registered vehicles

The new law will allow to register (and use) vehicles that steer and accelerate the vehicle by technical means “for a specified period of time and specified situations”, and which are capable of “instructing the driver” to take over control again. Accordingly, drivers will be able to fully transfer their control to automated systems for any given time, until the system demands the driver to resume control. That is a significant step beyond the current law, which requires the driver to monitor traffic events at all times when using partially automated driving systems.

Behavioural rules

Drivers will be allowed to turn away from traffic events and from the direct control while the vehicle is in the auto-pilot mode. However, the driver must be able to take the steer at any time, if and when the automated system alerts and demands this to happen. Accordingly, drivers will not be able to rely “blindfold” on the driving system, but must remain ready to intervene. In other words, the driver may read, write or watch TV to a certain extent, but having a nap will remain prohibited. The new law will shift the existing liability in case of an accident: Until now, the driver’s inattention at any given point in time triggers his liability; in the future, during the auto-pilot mode, the driver’s possible liability will focus on failing to react to the “wake-up signal”.


Vehicles with automated driving systems will be equipped with black boxes, in order to allow root cause analysis of car accidents. Similar to aircrafts, the black box will record journey data, in order to evaluate whether the driver has reacted late or whether the system has failed. Whenever evidence is had that the manufacturer of the system is responsible for the accident, he will be liable without limitation.

As far as we can tell so far, various questions of liability are yet unclear under the draft, including in regard to product liability, insurance coverage etc. Recent discussions indicate that the Ministry of Justice is yet reluctant to set new rules at all, arguing that a human should at any time retain control over the car, rather than the machine. German legislative bodies will be discussing the draft during/after the summer.

Overall impact

The German Federal Government is determined to pave the way for self-driving cars in Germany. By taking a step approach (rather than “jumping” right away for fully (i.e. unlimited) autonomous driving systems), drivers will not loose their genuine responsibility to exercise control over an automated driving system – at least if and when advised by the system to take back control in cases where the system detects ambiguities.

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