A Vision Urbanetic self-driving van by Mercedes-Benz | John MacDougall AFP via Getty Images
The European Commission is ready to let robots take the wheel.
The EU's executive plans to propose by the end of September what it reckons will be the world's first technical legislation that will allow member countries to approve the registration and sale of up to 1,500 vehicles per carmaker model each year installed with advanced self-driving technology, an EU official involved in drafting the rules told POLITICO.
Such vehicles, where motorists are no longer required to supervise driving, are still very much in the development stage. The aim is to fix Europe's position as a first mover for next generation cars able to navigate road networks and traffic autonomously, said two officials briefed on the plan.
“We are moving from the experimentation phase to the commercial phase,” the EU official said.
The legislation will include 17 separate pieces of technical rule-making that will amend how EU countries approve vehicles for sale. It's part of a much broader revamp of car safety standards called the General Safety Regulation (GSR) — part of which enters into force on Wednesday.
The EU aims to reach zero road deaths by 2050, but to do that it has to boost safety features in cars, as human error is estimated to be at fault in 95 percent of vehicular accidents.
The GSR legislation mandates the use of intelligent speed assistance systems — aimed at stopping drivers from accelerating beyond the speed limit — better safety glass and seatbelts, emergency stop signals, driver drowsiness warning systems and a data unit similar to an airplane's black box that can record data on crashes.
Under the law, automakers will need to install advanced emergency braking systems from this week that can detect other cars; that's supposed to be expanded to cover cyclists and pedestrians from 2024.
“These systems [mandated through the GSR] are for driver assistance so they are not here to drive or supervise, they are here to help you,” said the Commission official.
Self-driving systems are much more ambitious.
There's a six-stage scale of self-driving cars, from 0 — the kind of car familiar to Henry Ford and most road users today where the driver is in charge of everything, through Level 1 with systems like cruise control and Level 2 with steering lane assist — the kinds of things that are standard on most new cars. Level 3 is highly automated self-driving, where the driver can for a time hand over complete control of their car. Level 4 is where a car can complete a journey entirely on its own, but a driver can still intervene and the operation of the car is often geographically limited. This is the level that the Commission intends to approve.
Level 5 is where the car is completely autonomous and a human driver isn't needed at all — think the Jetsons.
The EU is currently working on allowing the sale of Level 3 cars.
After that, the Commission wants the EU to be the first market in the world to legally permit the sale of Level 4 autonomous vehicles.
Ready for the road?
With its Autopilot system, Tesla is still aiming for Level 3.
In Europe, Mercedes Benz got regulatory approval in Germany late last year to allow buyers of its S-Class to deploy the Drive Pilot Level 3 automated system at speeds of up to 60 kilometers per hour on 13,000 kilometers of national highway.
The approval is only valid in Germany, but the company said it had intensively tested its vehicles in the U.S. and China.
With carmakers only starting to reach Level 3 in very limited circumstances, Level 4 is still very much a research project, with trials of autonomous robotaxis and buses being held around the world.
This week, Germany's Federal Cartel Office gave the green light for Volkswagen and Bosch to work together on new artificial intelligence-assisted driving programs..
With the technology changing fast, there are calls for more oversight.
"We have large numbers of cars on EU roads today with Level 2 driver assistance systems on board and the first Level 3 systems that take full control of the vehicle," said Antonio Avenoso, the executive director of the European Transport Safety Council. "And yet, there is no EU level agency collecting data on crashes involving these vehicles."
Regulators in the U.S. are taking an interest in probing autonomous vehicle technology following a series of high-profile incidents. Allowing even more advanced autonomous vehicles on Europe's roads will require robust oversight to make sure safety isn't compromised, he said.
“There is a big scrutiny on how these vehicles perform in the field,” the Commission official said of connected and automated vehicles.
That's why the approval will initially limit sales of Level 4 vehicles to 1,500 units per model, to be reviewed after two years.
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