The prospect of self-driving cars moved closer to becoming reality last month with a little-noticed amendment to the United Nations Convention on Road Traffic. This amendment agreed that drivers could now take their hands off the wheel of self-driving cars. It was pushed by Germany, Italy and France – amongst others – whose top-end auto manufacturers believe they are ready to leap-frog the American tech pioneers and bring the first “autonomous vehicles” to market.
“Today I am only allowed to take my hands off the wheel to a limited extent. Thankfully the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic has been changed,” said Thomas Weber, head of Group research at Daimler and head of development at Mercedes-Benz.
As the technology becomes more affordable, Europe’s luxury automakers say they are well placed to take advantage of it because of their deeper experience in engineering, manufacturing, marketing and sales. To this end, in August 2013 Mercedes-Benz drove an S-class limousine between Mannheim and Pforzheim without any driver input in response to Google’s announcement of testing of its own driverless car. Mercedes has developed technology which can scan the road ahead and behind with cameras and radar, and prompt a vehicle to pull out and overtake a large truck without a driver having to touch the steering wheel.
It now wants to introduce more automated driving features into its cars, such as automated parking, automatic stop-and-go driving in traffic and motorway driving functions. Eventually, it hopes to have cars with elaborate self-driving software that can be easily updated – like an iPhone – to take advantage of new technical capabilities or changes in the law.
However, moving from the test drives to marketable products was held back by Article 8 of the 1968 Convention on Road Traffic, which stipulates: “Every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle or to guide his animals.”
The amendment agreed last month by the U.N. 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”. A driver must be present and able to take the wheel at any time.
Provided the amendment clears all bureaucratic hurdles, all 72 countries that are party to the convention would have to work the new rules into their laws. The convention covers European countries, Mexico, Chile, Brazil and Russia, although not the United States, Japan or China.