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Whose in charge here?

19 June 2015

Traffic laws in general and the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic in particular are based on the notion that the human driver is responsible for vehicle behavior. And as we have all been reliably informed, we will be driving autonomous vehicles in about a month or two (we’re not sure when because the predictions keep changing). So who, or what, is responsible when the driver is not the driver? Sweden and Belgium have proposed an answer.

The Vienna Convention presently defines a driver as “any person who drives a motor vehicle or other vehicle (including a cycle), or who guides cattle, singly or in herds, or flocks, or draught, pack or saddle animals on a road”. Setting aside the eventual dilemma of android shepherds, this clause naturally becomes moot when a person is no longer involved in driving a motor vehicle.

The Vienna Convention mentions the word “driver” in the singular or plural 174 times (yes, we checked). Remove the driver and you pretty much undermine the entire structure. But when you look at what the Convention has to say about drivers, you essentially find a description of how a vehicle should behave in traffic (respecting speeds, keeping safe distances, avoiding obstacles, etc.). This raises the question: Should we not require the same behavior of autonomous vehicles as we do of human drivers?

Yes, yes, I know. More than 90% of all accidents involve human error. Then again, if all vehicles were fully autonomous all the time, I suppose that 90% of all accidents would involve system error. In any case, we’re talking about ideal driver behavior here.

So, back to the original dilemma: What to do when the driver is not driving and your convention requires the driver to be controlling the vehicle at all times? The proposal from Sweden and Belgium: Change the definition of “driver”.

Belgium and Sweden have only just floated this idea and it remains to be seen how the community of traffic regulators will respond, but the proposal (slightly edited) would define a driver as “any person who drives or any vehicle system which has full control over the vehicle from departure until arrival…”.

The proposal builds on the pending amendment (due to enter into force in March 2016) to the Vienna Convention that approves of “systems which influence the way vehicles are driven” (i.e., automated driving technologies) provided they either can be “overridden or switched off by the driver” (meaning it’s the driver’s decision whether they are used) or that they are regulated under the 1958 Agreement (UN Regulation) or the 1998 Agreement (Global Technical Regulation).

The rationale is that the pending amendment covers “semi-autonomous” vehicles where control would be shared or pass between the driver and the system. The proposal to redefine the “driver” would cover “fully autonomous” vehicles.

When the vehicle is in fully autonomous mode, the human driver would no longer be legally considered the vehicle driver. Responsibility for vehicle behavior would reside solely with the automated system while the human in the driver’s seat would be liberated to do other things.

The vehicle system, therefore, would be legally required to fulfill all the responsibilities of its human counterpart. Failure to respect the traffic code would result in…well, that’s a whole other subject, but manufacturer liability comes to mind.

Naturally, articles of the Convention concerning things like owning car insurance would not apply. But from what I hear, we won’t need that anyhow once everything’s gone autonomous.

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