Black boxes could pave way for self-driving cars in Germany

Article by Andrew Christian, on June 26, 2014

German carmakers are mulling using "black box" data recorders in self-driving cars, just like those found in aircraft. While black boxes could be a concern in Germany, no thanks to surveillance worries, they could pave the way for the introduction of the autonomous driving technology.

Google and a number of carmakers including Mercedes-Benz and BMW have already developed autonomous or semi-autonomous cars.

Some features of the autonomous driving technology remained unreleased for public use – like automatic overtaking on motorways – no thanks to some legal questions surrounding them. The absence of such features could only mean fully self-driven car prototypes will remain such.

However, many see the installation of black boxes as a possible answer to those legal questions, since they would be able to tell who would be liable when a self-driving car gets involved in a crash.

The issue is currently a hot topic at Germany's "roundtable on autonomous driving," which is a group made up of carmakers, lawyers, privacy advocates and insurance executives aiming to ensure that the country does not lose its edge in carmaking.

The group is tasked to determine any shortcoming in the country regulation, technological know-how, and legal framework. A person privy with the deliberations at the group told Reuters that black boxes in cars is one the items being discussed.

With 9 of 10 accidents point to human error, engineers at carmakers believes that cars should be given more flexibility to intervene and assist drivers in a dangerous situation, just like how computers help pilots land planes.

But who would be liable when a self-driving car crashes has become a crucial issue to be resolved since German law currently does not distinguish between a car driven autonomously or semi-autonomously and the level of driver involvement.

To determine who is primarily responsible for an accident – the car, the driver or a third party -- insurers and carmakers want to collect car data like speed and inputs from sensors, cameras and the driver.

The data can be used by insurers to draw up policies “more tailored to a certain risk profile," according to Martin Stadler of German insurer Allianz. [source: Reuters]

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