Hardly a day goes by without coverage in the media of autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles. Many car-makers including Audi and Mercedes have been publicly testing autonomous cars, while newer players such as Tesla Motors and even Google have also appeared on the scene. They, too, are either already offering partially autonomous systems (in the case of Tesla) or are working on fully autonomous cars (Google). The development of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles presents considerable legal challenges, with existing legal norms being applied to new technical and legal situations.

The industry distinguishes between different types of autonomous system. For a start there are partially autonomous systems which take over certain tasks performed by the driver – such as following the road on the highway – but which require the driver to oversee the vehicle while it is doing so. More sophisticated technologies – the so-called ‘highly autonomous driving systems’ – do not even need driver supervision, while fully autonomous cars – which do not yet exist – will be able to drive us wherever we want to go while we relax with a cup of coffee. 

The current rules of the road

The use of semi-autonomous systems is primarily regulated by the provisions of national laws contained in specific road traffic acts and highway codes. For many countries, certain supra-national agreements also have to be taken into account. The 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic – ratified by more than 90 countries – stipulated the general rules of the road in its contracting states. This was succeeded by the 1968Vienna Convention on Road Traffic

The Vienna Convention requires that ‘every moving vehicle or combination of vehicles shall have a driver’, and that ‘every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle’. Since this text was drafted in the Sixties, it is fair to assume that it was based on the assumption that the driver is made of flesh and blood rather than of circuits and sensors. Since this language has become part of many national road traffic laws, the question now is whether autonomous driving systems might violate the convention, and would thus contravene national road laws. Therefore making national traffic laws – as well as the international framework agreements on which they are based – ready for 21st-century autonomous systems is one of the key regulatory challenges that will have to be overcome.

Change is on the horizon

The first steps in this regard have already been taken. The governments of Germany, Austria, Belgium, France and Italy have proposed an amendment to the Vienna Convention which would make systems that influence the way vehicles are driven (ie autonomous systems) permissible as long as they can be overridden or deactivated by the driver. The proposed amendment – which could come into effect in early 2016 –would allow signatory states to amend their national laws accordingly. 

Measures that pave the way for autonomous cars are coming. While it remains to be seen how quickly they will be adopted, it is clear that the way we drive will change – even if that change will happen only gradually.