Autonomous driving and legislation: out of the hands of auto manufacturers?
#automotiveAutonomous driving and legislation: out of the hands of auto manufacturers?

This is part two of a blog series about autonomous vehicles, for part one click here.

While software and hardware development is very much in the hands of carmakers, legislation related to autonomous driving is not. With their hands tied, manufacturers have little wiggle room and cannot just hand off cars that drive themselves to consumers without the legal foundations.

After all, the good old trolley problem, which challenges one’s ethics, can be modernized by changing the trolley into an autonomous vehicle. Brookings Institution, a Washington, US-based research group, has a different opinion about the matter.

“The Trolley Problem detracts from understanding about how autonomous cars actually work, how they “think,” how much influence humans have over their decision-making processes, and the real ethical issues that face those advocating the advancement and deployment of autonomous cars in cities and towns the globe over.” According to the author of the report, with the development of technology and its ability to think and act, “new — more complex and nuanced — ethical questions arise.”

The European Commission (EC) rhetorically asked who should be responsible in the worst-case scenario, how can we ensure ethical data sharing, and are pedestrians and other road participants more at risk with autonomous vehicles? Whatever the answers may be, “technological progress alone will not be sufficient for Connected and Automated Vehicles (CAVs) to achieve their potential,” stated Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth at the EC. Gabriel also pointed out that starting from the beginning to the day that CAVs drive out onto the roads, “the timely and systematic integration of ethical principles will be essential to align this emerging technology with our societal values and needs.”

Priority of safety

Governments and other interest groups for years have advocated and aimed to reduce the number of fatalities on the road since cars, and autonomous vehicles are set to deliver on that promise 100%.

“Digitalization allows us to make mobility even safer, more personal and especially smarter. The goal is for our vehicles to seamlessly integrate into our customer’s everyday lives. We’re thus creating a true added value – by giving them back time for things that are important to them,” Oliver Hoffmann, an Audi Board Member for Technical Development, was quoted as saying in the manufacturer’s release about the cars. Exploring myths related to the mobility of the future, the release explored and addressed eight of them.

One of them, naturally, was the myth that the technology is already there – but the foundation, namely the legislative basis upon which the future of mobility will be built, is yet to be laid down. According to the German luxury vehicle manufacturer, “In June 2021, a legal framework was established allowing autonomous vehicles, Level 4 and above, to operate regularly in public traffic, albeit only within defined areas (e.g. A-to-B shuttle traffic and “people mover” buses on designated routes).” Thus, while additionally Level 3 autonomous systems were given the green light in Germany in early 2017, the usage of fully driverless vehicles is still very limited. Nevertheless, even shuttle traffic between two pre-determined points of travel has exhibited struggles to operate safely. In an infamous incident at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics (held in August 2021), Toyota’s e-Palette shuttles were suspended from service after one collided with Aramitsu Kitazono, a Japanese Paralympian, who suffered minor injuries that regrettably led him to cancel his next day’s match.

“It shows that autonomous vehicles are not yet realistic for normal roads,” following the incident said Akio Toyoda, the CEO of Toyota. A few days later the e-Palette resumed services at the Olympic Village, as the company made changes that would improve the safety of the vehicle following the incident. One of those changes included that the safety operators, which had been onboard the car throughout the event, had louder warning sounds to inform them of potential obstruction. The brakes and the accelerator would be applied manually, rather than automatically, swaying away from the full autonomy of the vehicle.

That was only a minor incident involving autonomous vehicles, as there have been more high-profile accidents that resulted in lawsuits and unfortunately, deaths. Does that mean that these cars, which prioritize the computer’s actions, rather than a person’s at the wheel, will be safer in the future?

At least according to the EC, “these vehicles can bring down the number of road fatalities to near zero; increase accessibility of mobility services; and help to reduce harmful emissions from transport by making traffic more efficient.”

The question is then, what’s the next step?

Certain uncertainty

The whole automotive industry is looking towards the future and naturally is questioning what’s next on the horizon. While it is clear that the roads across the globe will be filled with zero-emission vehicles that would be also capable of driving themselves, there is plenty of uncertainty related to these two development branches.

Would the vehicle of the future be powered by electricity, which has been slowly chipping away at the market share of Internal Combustion Engine (ICE)-powered cars, or would it be hydrogen? Even when you weigh the pros and cons of both EVs and hydrogen autos, it is not a simple matter of who will offer the most range, least refuel/recharge time, and other consumption-related concerns. The pandemic, and the unfathomable invasion of Ukraine, showcased that supply chains can crumble in an instant, as highlighted by the shortages of semiconductors, wiring harnesses, and other parts. Volkswagen’s Chief Financial Officer told Reuters at the end of June 2022 that while phasing out ICE cars will not be an easy feat, the main challenge will be to have enough batteries that would power EVs.

In the same vein, when we are talking about autonomous vehicles, many questions remain. Perhaps insignificant in the grand scheme of things but we also have to consider various consumer groups, including enthusiasts – will the car of the future be a people mover rather than a commodity you can enjoy? Audi, at least, does not think so, as “self-driving cars will not end the fun we have behind the wheel. No manufacturer will prevent its customers from driving their own cars if they wish to do so.”

“In the future, vehicle owners will still have the choice of driving the car themselves or handing over control to the car during unpleasant situations such as stop-and-go traffic on the highway,” continued the automaker's release. That is already true to an extent with Level 3 systems that allow a user to have a both hands-off and a hands-on approach to driving. Still, as irrelevant as it might seem, it does pose an important question – can AI-driven cars and human-driven vehicles co-exist?

But whenever this conversation comes up, a third party has to join in on the fun: city design and the digitalization of urban environments.