Enthusiasm for what has become technically feasible is suppressing personal responsibility for our actions more and more, and the brain is being increasingly turned off. Everything is supposed to be easier and faster. In the near future, we will be driving with our smart cars from our smart homes to our smart offices, and all of this will happen in a smart city. As a lawyer, I won’t need to drive to smart court anymore, since smart justice is also supposed to be taken over by programs in the future. George Orwell sends his regards …

Let’s stick with the automobile that is becoming ever smarter. For example, vehicles already possess active braking assistants that can register by radar sensors and camera whether the vehicle ahead is driving slower, stopping or standing still. If the system recognizes a danger of collision and the driver does not heed the warning, an autonomous brake is automatically activated. Everywhere, one hears of and reads about visions for the fully automated automobile, or autonomous driving. And that of course requires a digital infrastructure, in other words the vehicle is to be completely digitally networked. But alongside the general euphoria, increasing concern is being expressed about fully automated driving, and I, too, am uneasy when I consider the question of whether and how all of this is supposed to function – above all flawlessly and without malfunctions! Each year on New Year’s Eve alone, millions of people try to send messages at midnight – completely unexpected of course (!). We all know this – the messages don’t go through because “the network” is overloaded. And in some regions, one still has almost no reception to this day…. Nevertheless, one (just who, exactly?) badly wants autonomous vehicles. Is that even compatible with applicable law?

The Vienna UN Convention of 1968 previously provided that every vehicle that is in motion must have a driver (Article 8(1)). One expression of this principle is that the driver must at all times be able to control the vehicle (Article 8(5)), and another is that the driver must be able to maintain an appropriate speed for the traffic conditions (Article 13(1)). Changes to the Vienna Convention had already been suggested in 2014, and took effect on March 23, 2016, in the absence of any objections by the other signatory states (then only 73). According to these changes, the driver is no longer required to constantly control the vehicle, and the path for new degrees of vehicle automatization has been cleared. The German automobile industry understands this to mean that the smart car can automatically overcome all situations.

The federal government, too, foremost Federal Minister for Transportation Dobrindt, wants “a vehicle system that has complete control over the vehicle from the moment it drives off to the moment it arrives.” In this respect the Vienna Convention must be revised again, because it still contains mention of a “driver”. A proposed change already exists. Nevertheless, somehow it seems eerie that, in Dobrindt’s strategy paper toward this end, the definition of “driver” would have to be so enlarged that it would put “future automated systems with full control over a vehicle on an equal footing” with humans. Hmmm – wasn’t there also a lack of any kind of remote control or off button in Orwell’s case?

The intent and purpose of the appointed Ethics Commission, which is supposed to develop clear guidelines for algorithms that determine vehicle reactions in risky situations, also appears somewhat dubious. This commission is composed primarily of representatives from the scientific community, the automobile industry and the digital community. Shame on anyone who would think badly of this. Two tenets have already been determined, though: property damage is preferable to bodily injury, and there may be no classification of persons, such as according to height or age. To what end to I need an Ethics Commission, then? The implementation of algorithms, a sort of if-then decision making, should be purely a matter of programming according to the stipulation that accidents should be avoided if possible and dangerous situations should be recognized early.

Conclusion: Independent of the question whether we humans actually want to give up our sovereignty, there are numerous technical preconditions that must be addressed. Above all, there are legal preconditions that have effects beyond Germany because of their complexity. The type of communication and most notably the manner in which it is watched over will determine whether Industrial Internet is a blessing or a curse. For this reason, we should all adopt the approach of continual critical scrutiny.