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In brief

What has happened?

In 2017, the German Parliament amended the German Road Traffic Act (Straßenverkehrsgesetz, “StVG“) to allow the use of vehicles equipped with Level 3 automated steering systems on public roads. Such automated systems allow the driver to disengage from the act of driving while the vehicle is operated by the automated steering system. Level 3 is, however, limited to specific situations and the driver must be able to regain control upon request from the system.

Four years later, in February 2021, the German Federal Government went a step further and adopted a draft bill including Level 4 autonomous driving as an option when participating in public traffic. Level 4 describes fully automated driving where the vehicle’s driving system is fully capable of handling all driving functions without requiring human interaction. However, in difficult driving conditions, a human driver may have to take over control of the vehicle. Germany would be the first country in the world allowing to operate such level 4-enabled vehicles on public roads.


What it means for you

Definition and admissibility of autonomous vehicles

The bill introduces the term “motor vehicle with autonomous driving function” (Kraftfahrzeug mit autonomer Fahrfunktion). Such motor vehicle is able to fulfill a driving task independently without a human driver within a “specified operating area” (festgelegter Betriebsbereich) and may be operated on German public roads if it 

  • satisfies certain technical requirements, 
  • has received a specific autonomous driving-related operating permit (Betriebserlaubnis) from the German Federal Motor Transport Authority (Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt, “KBA“), 
  • is operated within a specified operating area approved by the competent State authority, and 
  • has been registered as it is the case with any motor vehicle (i.e. has been equipped with license plates).

Use cases and specified operating areas

Typical use cases for Level 4-enabled vehicles include: 

  • Shuttle services 
  • People mover 
  • Hub-2-Hub traffic between logistics centers 
  • Demand-oriented transport services during off-hours 
  • Transport of passenger and / or goods over the first and last mile 
  • Dual mode vehicles, e.g. Automated Valet Parking (“AVP”)

Level 4 vehicles may only operate on public roads that have been specifically declared as “specified operating areas”. The holder of a level 4 vehicle will have to apply with the competent State authority for use of such area.

Test permits

Currently, the test driving of automated or autonomous vehicles on public roads requires a permit issued by the competent State authority. The draft bill reallocates jurisdiction for such permits to the KBA in order to ensure uniform application of the law.

Technical requirements and technical supervisor

Level 4-enabled vehicles must satisfy a variety of technical requirements in order to ensure road safety. For example, they must be able to comply with traffic rules and be equipped with an accident minimization system. If an accident is unavoidable, such system must be able to correctly balance legally the respective protected interests and protect human life as a top priority (e.g. damage to property must be accepted in order to avoid personal injury). On the other hand, in the case of a dilemma situation (e.g. either an old person or a young child will be injured), the system must not base a decision on personal characteristics.

While level 4-capable vehicles do not require a human driver in most situations, the bill introduces the requirement of a technical supervisor (Technische Aufsicht) who must be natural person. Such supervisor has a variety of obligations. For example, he or she must be able to remotely deactivate the self-operating vehicle at any time, put the vehicle in a minimal risk state (where the vehicle brakes slowly and stops on the roadside) and communicate with the vehicle’s occupants.

Data collection and processing

The bill contains various data processing requirements. For example, the holder must store certain data related to the vehicle’s operation (e.g. location data, speed, activation of security systems, etc.). Certain data must be made available to the authorities. E.g., KBA may use non-personalized data obtained from the vehicle’s operation for scientific purposes (e.g. accident research). 

  • Please note that the new legal framework for Level 4 vehicles shall only serve as an interim solution until harmonized rules have been adopted at international level, in particular by the World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (which is part of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe). It is expected that the legislative process for this bill can be completed by mid-2021.

Actions to take

It seems advisable for companies in the automotive sector to review and align their autonomous driving projects with the proposed legislation and to closely monitor the legislative process.

Author

Dr. Andreas Neumann is admitted as an attorney-at-law in the jurisdictions of Austria, Germany (pursuant to Directive 98/5/EC) and New York. He is a member of Baker McKenzie’s Public Law Practice Group in Frankfurt. Prior to joining the Firm in October 2015, he gained four years of professional experience as an associate in one of Austria's leading business law firms. In this function, Andreas counseled major international enterprises in the pharmaceutical and telecommunication industries in trade law and regulatory matters. Andreas also spent nine months as a judicial clerk at various sections of the Salzburg District and Regional Court.