Autonomous Vehicles

Autonomous driving

At the 17th International Liability Forum for clients of Munich Re, Ralf Herrtwich, Director of Driver Assistance and Chassis Systems at Mercedes-Benz/ Daimler AG, the risk researcher Prof. Ortwin Renn and robotics-law expert Prof. Eric Hilgendorf discussed the current state of development, technical challenges, the legal framework and social acceptance of Autonomous driving. Here the most important results of the discussion, Christian Fuhrmann, Head of Global Clients/North America conducted the interview.


Fuhrmann: Mr. Renn, aside from all the technical and legal obstacles, do consumers want automated vehicles in the first place? Won't this take all the fun out of driving?

Renn: If you had asked me that question ten years ago, my answer would have been considerably more pessi-mistic than today. Back then, according to surveys, most drivers – especially drivers of premium cars – didn't want fully automated vehicles. Meanwhile, however, they have already become quite used to assistance systems and find it easier to imagine switching over – at least in part – to an automatic driving mode. I expect the transition to automated driving to proceed step by step, so that people will get more and more used to having certain functions carried out automatically, while still retaining overall control of the car. All in all, the possibility of automated driving is increasingly gaining favour and acceptance.

Mr. Herrtwich, can you confirm the impression of a change of mood in the population? Away from the fun of driving to fun while driving?

Herrtwich: It depends. Where road and traffic conditions allow, driving can of course be great fun in the future too. But many of our customers and we  have to realize: the fun factor in a traffic jam on the way to work each day is limited. And in such situations it would be great if the vehicle could drive itself – with the fun then perhaps coming from the fact that one no longer had to do the driving oneself.

Which is the main target group you have in mind when developing automated driving? The owners of luxury cars? The transport of goods by trucks?

Herrtwich: We are actually developing in various directions. In our limousines, automation should ultimately allow a vehicle to drive itself whenever the driver doesn't want to drive. With trucks, we expect that the driver may perhaps want to take care of other things during the journey, such as scheduling. And we are even thinking beyond this: what would it be like if you no longer had to walk to the nearest car2go, but it came to you by itself?

Mr. Hilgendorf, how does the legal framework for autonomous driving currently look? Is what is technically possible actually allowed?

Hilgendorf: The most important international requirements are contained in the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. In spring 2014, important changes to this got under way, and these will probably lead to the Convention being reformed in 2016. National law will then have to be adapted – in Germany primarily the Straßenverkehrsordnung (road traffic regulations). The changes required are quite limited, however.

Mr. Renn, what comes next? What will the future level of acceptance of automated driving depend on?

Renn: The driving assistants already on offer today are being accepted by car buyers in a mostly positive way. However, there are differences here between the premium class and vehicles offered in the low-end or middle segment. The main reason for this is that, in percentage terms, assistance systems make little difference to the cost of expensive cars, whereas with less expensive vehicles they mean a considerable additional financial burden. However, I am expecting that in the future it will be possible to offer at least partly automated functions at a lower cost than today. Automated car sharing in cities could be a particularly attractive market. Technically though, we are still a long way from rolling this out everywhere. The vision for the future is for a hire car that I have ordered to pick me up, without a driver, and drive me to where I want to go. Because these vehicles would no longer have to wait for a driver, this would result in far higher usage rates and less need for parking areas. This would be extremely attractive for the smart city of the future.

Fuhrmann: When will fully automated vehicles be available then for normal traffic on public roads? Or is that as yet quite impossible to foresee?

Herrtwich: Full automation would mean that a vehicle can deal autonomously with any conceivable traffic situation – everywhere and in any weather. This still appears very challenging at the moment, even if we look a few years into the future.

In what situations does automated driving already work well? What are currently the biggest technical challenges for car makers?

Herrtwich: In traffic jams you can already let your Mercedes do the driving. Structured traffic situations – on the motorway for instance, or driving at low speeds, e.g. when parking, are well suited to automation. Which is not to say that it is easy. But the chaotic traffic in cities where you have to look out for pedestrians, cyclists, traffic lights, etc. would be another matter entirely.

How should we expect the allocation of roles between driver and automated vehicle to be? Who does what?

Herrtwich: A distinction is made between different levels of automation. What we currently have in the market is "partial automation" – the vehicle can do a lot on its own, but the driver has to check all the time that it doesn't do anything wrong. With "high-level automation", the driver only needs to pay attention and take over when the vehicle asks him to. And with "full automation", the driver is no longer needed – the car could also operate without a driver.

Do automated vehicles make driving safer? Will there be fewer accidents? Or just different ones? What new risks do you see?

Herrtwich: In our opinion, automation makes driving safer. However, it won't be possible to rule out individual accidents altogether in the future, for even if automated vehicles are programmed to drive carefully, it would still be possible that situations  arise spontaneously in which the pure physics of driving could not rule out a collision. These are scenarios for which we still have to make provisions on the legal side, as well as on the insurance side.

Mr. Hilgendorf, how is the legal situation then when steering is done partly by the driver and partly by the vehicle – what effect does that have on the driver's liability? Will it really be possible in future for someone who has switched over to automated driving to read, text or sleep with a clear conscience, as the media often suggest?

Hilgendorf: No. For the foreseeable future, it is expected that courts will set strict requirements for the monitoring of automated vehicles. One can speak of a "control dilemma". Technically it would be possible to have largely automated driving. Legally, however, extensive control of automated systems is prescribed.

Who can actually be liable if something happens during automated driving? The manufacturer? The keeper of the car? Or both?

Hilgendorf: Basically, both can be liable – the manufacturer and the keeper of the car. There is reason to believe that there will be an extension of manufacturer's liability, as any malfunctions of automated systems would involve product liability rather than the car keeper´s liability.

What problems arise when programming (partly) autonomously driven vehicles for hazardous situations? Does the computer then decide over life and death?

Hilgendorf: There are already automated systems in use today which are intended to help prevent collisions. This can, of course, also affect matters of (human) life or death. Deciding between a street post and a child's life does not raise any particular problems. But the situation is different when it comes to deciding between one human life and three human lives. It still has to clarified whether such "algorithms of death" could ever be accepted.

Our interview-partners

Prof. Dr. Ortwin Renn teaches environmental sociology and technology assessment at the University of Stuttgart, where he is also Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Risk and Innovation Studies (ZIRIUS). He has researched in Germany, the USA and Switzerland and has honorary professorships in Stavanger, Beijing and Munich.

Prof. Ralf G. Herrtwich is the Director of Driver Assistance and Chassis Systems at Mercedes-Benz. He previously headed the Mercedes-Benz Centre for Infotainment and Telematics Systems and has also worked for IBM and several telecommunications companies. He is also Honorary Professor of Vehicle Information Technology at the Technical University (TU) of Berlin.

Prof. Eric Hilgendorf holds the Chair of Criminal Law and Legal Informatics at the University of Würzburg. He also heads that University's Research Centre for Robotics Law. He specialises in computer law and media law.

Munich Re Experts
Ina Ebert
Ina Ebert
Leading Expert, Liability and Insurance law
Christian Fuhrmann
Christian Fuhrmann
Head of Divisional Unit Global Clients / North America and expert for P/C Insurance and Reinsurance General management