Navigant Research Blog

Europe Overtaking United States in Autonomous Vehicles

David Alexander — June 2, 2014

In the last few years, as the technology to make self-driving vehicles has neared production-readiness, vehicle manufacturers have begun to press legislators to ensure that the technology will be legal to use on the road when the cars go on sale.  In some countries, anything is legal unless it’s specifically banned, but in others everything is illegal unless it is specifically allowed.  One of the major pieces of legislation that concerns automakers globally is Article 8 of the 1968 United Nations (UN) Convention on Road Traffic (also known as the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic), which stipulates: “Every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle or to guide his animals.”

An amendment to this statement, agreed to in March by the UN Working Party on Road Traffic Safety, would allow a car to drive itself as long as the system “can be overridden or switched off by the driver.”  This, of course, means that a driver must be present and able to take the wheel at any time, so it does not open the door to fully autonomous vehicles on public roads.  Provided the amendment clears the usual bureaucratic hurdles, all 72 countries that are party to the convention will then have to work the new rules into their laws.  The convention covers European countries, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, and Russia, although it does not cover the United States, Japan, or China.

Wake Up and Drive

The big benefit of this agreement is that the European carmakers can continue to develop and introduce more advanced driver assistance systems, such as lane keeping, motorway cruising, and traffic jam mode.  Many of these systems have been under testing for a few years and are now allowed on public roads under specific licenses from local authorities, such as described in my recent blog on Google cars.  But these self-driving functions have been held back from production by the requirement that the driver must be in control at all times.  So it now looks likely that European customers will be able to order these and more advanced systems much sooner than people in Japan, China, and especially North America, where litigation is a way of life.

The automotive manufacturers are working hard to develop suitable protocols for handing back control to a driver who may not be paying attention.  While allowing technology to take over routine driving tasks is likely to improve safety, especially on long journeys, the nature of the systems will lead inevitably lead to drivers falling asleep or focusing on other tasks such as email or reading.  If an automated driving system encounters a set of circumstances beyond its capability, it will need to return control to the driver immediately.  If the driver is unprepared, this could have serious consequences.

There is still a long way to go before bringing fully autonomous vehicles to the road is practical.  The long-term societal benefits mean that it is not a question of if, but of when.  This change to the Vienna Convention is a small but very significant event, and it surprising that there has not been more media coverage of the announcement.

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