Mobility of the future: the legal aspects
A look at progress: autonomous driving and the law
What challenges does autonomous driving present for road traffic law? How is liability determined in the event of an accident? And is it possible to harmonize international legal systems for autonomous driving? Audi’s expert study „
SocAIty“ addresses these central questions about the mobility of tomorrow. The field of law, together with the technological and ethical challenges of autonomous driving, is one of the study’s three focal points.
Technology is rushing ahead of the law
In a quite general sense, one can assume that legislation does not stand in the way of technological developments: it responds to new technological achievements and issues corresponding regulations. Nonetheless, many of the experts who contributed to the study see major challenges here as well. Technological development is rushing ahead of the legal framework in several countries, such as China and the US, which could lead to uncertainty and discomfiture among companies and users.
However, this is not yet the case in Germany. Here, legislators set legal parameters very early on, prioritizing safety above all and, for instance, only enabling this technology to be used within a controlled environment. The task of regulation will only be to respond flexibly to technological and social developments. That is why the study’s experts are pleading for an evolutionary approach. They call for a continual dialog among all participants from industry, politics, society, and the judiciary, ensuring the best possible safety and acceptance for society in transparent processes.
The 2021 law is a bridge law
As a matter of policy, Germany is already doing this and is therefore considered a legislative pioneer by international comparison. Since 2017, autonomous driving systems have been allowed, under certain circumstances, to take over actions that were previously the exclusive responsibility of humans (level 3). In June 2021, a legal framework was established allowing autonomous vehicles from level 4 to operate regularly in public traffic, albeit only within defined areas (for instance, shuttle traffic from A to B, “People Mover” buses on designated routes or “dual mode” vehicles, such as those with “automated valet parking”). However, this law is only a first step toward more comprehensive regulation. Legislators see it as a “bridge law.” It must be followed in the next stage by joint European initiatives, including looking at the differences between driving on the right versus the left, to name just one example.
Humans bear final responsibility
A central question about autonomous driving asks: Who is liable in the event of an accident that involves an autonomous vehicle? Is it the driver, the owner, or the manufacturer? Or even the machine or the algorithm that controls the vehicle? The experts agree: machines or algorithms, as intelligent as they may be, will never be able to be held legally liable. The reason: “It is culturally established that humans are ultimately responsible, even if that responsibility could theoretically be borne by a machine,” the study says.
Third party liability and product liability are unambiguous in Germany
Additionally, the subject of liability is unambiguously stipulated in German liability law. In traffic, it generally defines the owner as the liable party. Third party vehicle insurance is firmly established and socially accepted as compulsory insurance. Liability does not have to be fundamentally altered, but rather can be conveyed onto autonomous driving. The 2017 law also left the rules for product liability untouched and therefore stipulated that, when a level 3 system is activated and an accident happens due to a malfunction, the vehicle manufacturer is held liable under product liability.
The search for error sources grows more complex
The study goes on to say that, if we assume that level 4 or 5 vehicles will increasingly be on the road in the near future, the search for possible sources of errors will become increasingly complex. In the future, “a multitude of questions will have to be answered to unequivocally determine who will ultimately have to be legally liable. Was an autonomous system active? Did the driver make a mistake? Did the owner meet his or her maintenance obligations? Was the error caused by a mobile service provider, network operator, or map provider? Or by another infrastructure component (such as defective roads or traffic lights)?”
Black box for following up on accidents as a solution?
Because these sometimes difficult questions to answer will make heavy demands on the judiciary, some people are already thinking about what technical solutions to accident investigations might look like. One option is a kind of black box for vehicles, which already exists to a limited extent: it records a possible sequence of events leading up to an accident in order to be able to unequivocally determine the causes afterwards. Yet here as well, human responsibility for the functioning of this kind of hardware is still in the background. The bottom line, not only for this partial aspect but for all the challenges that autonomous driving will bring from a legal perspective, is: “the legal requirements for people will not decrease.”