Weekly Brief: Germany Takes Aim at Driverless Tech Dominance

Germany is the first country in the world to legalize fully autonomous vehicles on public roads.

The landmark legislation passed both the lower and upper chambers of Germany’s parliament last week with a comfortable majority. The legislation will allow Level 4 autonomous vehicles to operate on public roads in Germany without drivers behind the wheel and without obtaining special permits. The new legal framework mandates that autonomous vehicles must be manufactured and maintained in accordance with new, yet-to-be-crafted technical requirements. In addition, the law calls for technical command centers where live supervisors will oversee each fleet of self-driving cars and have the ability to control and deactivate them remotely when problems arise.

The legislation is expected to become the law of the land within the next several weeks and marks a victory for outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has long advocated for Germany and its automakers to take on a “pioneering role” in the research, development and deployment of autonomous vehicles. While the United States and China are more obvious pioneers for self-driving startups and pilots, it’s Germany, the birthplace of the automobile, that’s now in a pole position to demonstrate how robo-taxis should be integrated into existing traffic systems and legal frameworks.

Don’t expect to see self-driving cars flying down the Autobahn next month, however. The responsibility now falls to Germany’s Federal Transport Ministry to craft the technical regulations and build out the specifications to give the new legislation its regulatory heft. Also, it remains to be seen which AV companies will move in to meet the opportunity. Germany may be the first in the world to legalize self-driving cars and create a regulatory framework at the federal level but it’s hardly been a hot-spot of AV development over the past decade. More like an afterthought.

BMW and Mercedes-Benz have expressed little interest in developing or commercializing robo-taxis on their own. Volkswagen is more supportive. The carmaker says it wants to launch a robo-taxi service in 2025, built around the ID.Buzz electric microbus and integrating software from Argo AI, in which VW is an investor. It will begin on road Level 4 testing with the ID.Buzz in Munich.

It reminds me of the movie Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner famously builds a baseball diamond out of a cornfield and all the great baseball players of a bygone era show up to start playing. The field precedes the players. The game follows the stadium. It will be interesting to see if the same holds true for Germany; if the game will come to it or if that game will continue to be played on more fertile ground in unfinished stadiums like in Shanghai and Beijing or Phoenix and California, where 56 companies currently have a license to operate AV pilots on public roads.

Waymo is the only company in the world with an active commercial robo-taxi service. One reason that service has been slow to grow beyond the suburbs of Phoenix is because of the lack of a federal regulatory framework in the US that could shield the company from thorny, unsettled questions about liability when accidents occur. Back in 2019 Waymo partnered with Renault to launch its global expansion, starting with France and Japan. Nothing much has come of those efforts since and Waymo has no existing footprint in Germany.

Cruise is another potential candidate to move into the German market. The company recently penned a valuable partnership with the crown prince of Dubai, to become the exclusive provider for self-driving taxis and ride-hailing services in Dubai through 2029. Irrespective of which provider shows up first, the legislation will likely act as a catalyst for AV development and deployment in Germany. It’s also likely to serve as a regulatory model for other countries to follow, as well as the European Union as a whole. Germany holds a central role when it comes to influencing transportation rules within the EU.

That’s one reason why Mercedes-Benz, BMW and VW actively supported Germany’s new law, despite lukewarm interest in pursuing robo-taxis on their own. Even if they don’t deploy anything soon, Germany taking hold of the regulatory torch means that Germany’s Big 3 can influence how regulations take shape around the world.

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