China Desk Newsletter: Autonomous driving – where are we headed?

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Newsletter

Published 20 May 2020
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Self-driving vehicles – or autonomous vehicles (AV) – have for many been a dream for decades. New sensor technology is rapidly emerging, including radar, GPS, sonar, lidar, inertial measurement unit (IMU) and other advanced control systems, making it possible for vehicles to interpret sensory information in order to navigate safely and effectively.

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Statistics from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) shows that the country which recently has been most active with the AV sector, is China. In addition to the patent filing statistics, WIPO points to the Chinese Government’s New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan (announced in 2017). This shows China’s determination to become a global leader in artificial intelligence, including autonomous driving technology. Furthermore, China heavily invests in infrastructure and building roads and streets that are compatible with connected and autonomous vehicles. Roads in Beijing’s E-Town are among 44 roads (total 123 km) marked out for testing AVs. Besides Beijing, extensive testing is also taking place in 15 other cities around China, including Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou in Guangdong province, Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, Wuhan in Hubei province and Chongqing.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has developed an AV classification standard reaching from level 0 to level 5 (the SAE J3016 standard). Despite an intensive R&D activity within the field of AV, we are generally at level 2 (partial automation) for commercially available products as of today. However, several players have announced plans for launching commercial products at level 3 (conditional automation) and level 4 (high automation) by 2021.

Norway is ranked as one of the three most prepared countries for AV. Having been involved in the application process of obtaining the first testing license for AV in Norway, this ranking is not surprising. From a regulatory perspective, the Norwegian political desire to appear as a pioneer nation on AV has already given results. In March 2016, Norway signed the Amsterdam declaration on Cooperation in the field of connected and automated driving. In less than 6 months in 2017, the Norwegian legislator proposed, processed and unanimously passed the proposed law for testing self-driving vehicles.

Though Norway has ratified the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic from 1968 and the principle on a natural person being the liable driver has been an important principle in Norwegian road traffic legislation, the test law opens from deviating this principle. There shall be a liable applicant for AV testing pursuant to the test law, but the law opens for fully autonomous vehicles being tested and put into traffic in a controlled and safe manner. During the period from the effective date of the test law 1 January 2018 and until the end of 2019, the Norwegian authorities issued 25 licenses to conduct AV testing in larger scale and approximately 10 licenses to small-scale testing. Amongst several interesting Norwegian pilot projects, Oslo has since 20 May 2019 tested two self-driving buses – Mads and Oda.

However, we currently lack an international and regional legal framework for AV. Within the EU, the Commission is positive to the introduction and deployment of Connected and Automated Mobility (CAM) and is i.a. co-funding several research and innovation projects, supporting actions and infrastructure pilots. The Commission is also supporting to designate 5G cross-border corridors, where vehicles can physically move cross-border and where the road safety, data access, data quality and liability, connectivity and digital technologies can be tested and demonstrated across borders. In order to do so, a joint legislative framework has to be in place. But it is expected that the first European basic legal framework for AV will not be in place until 2021. Norway is engaged and has great interests in this ongoing work.

From a technology developer's and an investor's perspective commercial predictability and certainty regarding the regulatory landscape is important. Reverting to the Norwegian test law, currently a license can only be given for a limited time period, with an option for prolonging the license. Although the Norwegian authorities seems positive towards both new applicants and prolonging licenses already issued, this limited time provision may create uncertainty for the market players making investments for full commercialization of pilot projects. We therefore need new permanent legislation – both in Norway, in Europe and internationally – facilitating and incentivizing the industry taking AV literally to the next level.

Even though the literary Kjell Aukrust character Rudolf Blodstrupmoen from the Pinchcliff drove his GT Boomerang Rapido (built in accordance with the Spitfire principle) manually, as he so rightfully put it: "Time will show!"