How Germany Hopes to Stand Out in Driverless Technology

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FRANKFURT – In Hamburg, a fleet of electric Volkswagen minibuses belonging to a passenger pickup service picks up and drops passengers. The vehicles steer themselves, but technicians working from a remote control center monitor their progress with the help of video monitors. If something goes wrong, they can take control of the vehicle and get it out of trouble.

This futuristic vision, within the reach of current technology, is about to become legal in Germany. Parliament in Berlin Approves new law on autonomous driving It is waiting for the signature of the German president as a formality in May. The law provides a way for companies to start monetizing their autonomous driving services, which could spur development.

Provided that autonomous vehicles are supervised by humans, German law reflects the fact that in the industry, researchers are still years away from cars that could allow the driver to safely disengage while the car does all the work. The law also requires autonomous vehicles to operate in a defined area approved by the authorities; it’s an acknowledgment that technology isn’t advanced enough to work safely in areas where traffic is chaotic and unpredictable.

That’s why German companies following the technology have adjusted their ambitions by focusing on monetization uses that don’t require major breakthroughs.

Germany’s nationwide approach contradicts the patchwork of state laws in the United States. The US government has issued guidelines for autonomous driving, but attempts to create mandatory rules that would apply in all 50 states fell through in Congress due to disagreement between automakers and autonomous driving developers over what the legislation would say.

Some states have promoted autonomous driving research; Arizona, for example, allows Waymo to offer driverless taxis in Phoenix. But it is not yet possible to achieve the kind of scale that would help roll out such services nationwide and make them profitable.

“Germany is unique in the sense that you now have a law that covers the entire country,” said Elliot Katz, chief business officer of Phantom Auto, a California company that provides software to monitor and control vehicles remotely. “In the US, we don’t have a comprehensive federal autonomous driving regulation. We have state laws that are problematic because driving is interstate in nature.”

German legislation could also give the country’s automakers an edge in the race to design self-driving cars. By deploying autonomous vehicles commercially, they will collect massive amounts of data that they can use to advance the technology. If the services are profitable, it will also help pay for further development.

“There are two main issues for German automakers: the transition to electric cars and autonomous driving,” said Moritz Hüsch, a law-following partner at the law firm Covington in Frankfurt. “German automakers are our crown jewels. They are really keen to be at the forefront of both issues.”

The law allows autonomous vehicles to stay within a defined area and are inspected by trained technicians. Most importantly, it allows monitors to monitor multiple vehicles remotely. This means that one person or team can inspect a fleet of autonomous shuttle vans or self-driving taxis with video from a command center, eliminating the need for a supervisor on each vehicle. In the event of a breakdown, a technician will be able to take control of the vehicle remotely.

Proponents say the law will allow autonomous buses to serve rural areas where public transport is scarce. Other services may include automated valet parking or robot package delivery. Autonomous vehicles can be used to transport components or workers around a factory complex or students around a university.

There are already vehicles that can take a predictable route from the airport parking lot to the departure terminal, but current German law requires a person to be on board, canceling out any cost savings from eliminating the driver.

If a driver can control a dozen buses from a command center, “there are now use cases that can be attractive,” said Peter Liggesmeyer, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering in Kaiserslautern. He said this would encourage further development.

In technical jargon, the new law allows for Level 4 autonomous driving, where a vehicle can often be steered and steered on its own but sometimes requires human intervention. This is one step away from the autonomous driving nirvana of cars that can operate without any human assistance.

For example, Volkswagen is testing a ridesharing service called Moia in Hamburg and Hanover. The new law makes it easier for Volkswagen to meet Moia’s goal of converting its electric vans to autonomous operation by 2025, but further changes to the country’s public transport law may be required.

“The use of autonomous vehicles is now possible in Germany,” said Christian Senger, senior vice president of Volkswagen’s commercial vehicles division responsible for autonomous driving. “This is something that all market participants expect, not just Volkswagen.”

Tech companies like it Waymo or Toyota, have invested billions of dollars in autonomous driving technology, but have yet to see a return on their investment. Uber sold its self-driving unit last year after investing more than $1 billion. fatal accidents Tesla’s Autopilot The software raised questions about the technology’s shortcomings.

Whether a uniform legal framework could give German companies a decisive advantage over American companies is another question. That was the intention.

“Germany may be the first country in the world to bring self-driving cars from the laboratory into everyday use,” Social Democratic Member of Parliament Arno Klare said during the debate on the law in Berlin. Said.

In the United States, things get complicated the moment an autonomous vehicle tries to cross state lines. California, Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania are considered leaders in providing legal parameters for autonomous driving technology. But 10 states, including New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Maryland, have not passed laws or ordinances regulating autonomous driving. National Conference of State Legislators. Rules in other states have not followed a consistent pattern.

Raj Rajkumar, who runs the autonomous driving program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which has trained many of the leading scientists in the field, said the new legislation will give German companies an advantage. But he said he was concerned that the US and Europe risked falling behind China in technology and regulation.

“There is an international arms race between the US, Europe and China,” said Mr Rajkumar, who estimates fully autonomous vehicles are still a decade away. “China is an authoritarian country. They can cross any rules they want overnight.”

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